You have most likely heard the phrase ‘show don’t tell’. It is one of the most popular writing advice you will see on the internet. But it is also quite vague and can turn out to be the most unhelpful because what exactly does it mean anyway?
Mastering the ‘show don’t tell technique’ has the ability to elevate your writing from looking amateur to clean, poetic and professional. It is a technique that allows readers to experience the story through actions, words, thoughts, sensory details and expression of character’s emotions rather than through the author’s exposition or summarization.
The concept is often credited to Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov who said, “Don’t tell me the moon shining show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
It is much more engaging for the readers when this technique is applied. Read on to know just exactly how it is done!
How It’s done
create a sense of setting: Incorporate sensory details into the scene. This helps readers imagine the setting and gives a more lucid and pictorial image of your story. Example:
“Camels and their riders filed by, moving almost in tandem with the beat of the drums, followed by women balancing enormous cloud-shaped bundles on their heads. They were trailed by donkeys saddled with sky-high loads, then porters, pitiful-looking men and women burdened with baskets and pans, wearing nothing but strips of cloth covering their private parts.”
Above is an excerpt from the novel, ‘Hundred Wells of Salaga’ by Ayesha Harruna Attah. We have a very vivid image of the scene. Ayesha uses colorful language that instantly draws us into the setting. So instead of making a statement like ‘she was stuck in Lagos traffic’ you could say ‘she was currently sandwiched between two yellow danfos waiting desperately for the lights to turn green.’
Another way to apply this technique is through dialogue. You can use the speech of your chsrscters to add more depth to your story. Rather than stating that a character is selfish in nature. You could create a scene where the character goes: ‘but I want more dresses mother….so what if father’s business is bankrupt. I have an event to attend and i cannot afford not to slay’.
You are able to pass across the same message without stating it out rightly. This way you allow the readers come to the conclusions themselves and have personal interpretations.
As great as this technique is, it is necessary that you strike a balance. Overembellishing, being too verbose or overly descriptive can put your readers off. So sometimes showing could be simply telling your readers what is going on!
Practice makes perfect when it comes to this. And if you are looking for more examples simply pick up any work of literature!