Show, don’t tell… | Pelican Book Group Official Blog

Show, don’t tell.

How many times have you seen that written in a rejection you’ve received? What does it mean?

When an editor asks for show, we’re basically asking an author to allow the reader to be a “fly on the wall” observing the story as it unfolds.

Readers can’t “see” the past life of the hero or heroine. Since a story is mostly written in present tense, the past is gone, and cannot be shown. Therefore, it can only be told. It is essentially set in stone. A little bit of telling is okay in a story, but since it is past, it is also stagnant, and has no possibility of change. An example of telling:

Henry always thought the moon was made of charcoal. As a young boy, he figured that God had simply lit a big fire when He said, “let there be light,” and then tossed one of the spent, ashy gray briquettes out into the night sky. It never occurred to him to wonder how God started the fire.

An author should tell only enough to bring the hero and heroine to the present point of meeting, and then drop the past. Present and future tense offer the possibility of change – the hero can get the girl, the lost cause may not be so lost, the possibility of resolution and a happy-ever-after is active and ever present in the back of the reader’s mind. They read in hope of seeing the characters resolve the difficulties, and then resume the life they are supposed to have in the future.

The author’s task is to unfold impossible odds, and make them possible. As the story is written the author should be revealing the layers of the hero and heroine’s characters, their reactions to the plot that surrounds them, and the way the characters solve the issues to bring forth that Happy-Ever-After.

Show the hero and heroine actively trying to get together, learning about each other and ultimately, being together. Don’t let their feelings stagnate while you tell about something in their pasts, instead, bring it forward, such as this example:

“I remember when I was little, I thought the moon was made of burnt charcoal.” Henry smiled at Vanessa as he slipped an arm around her shoulders.
“Because of the glow?”
“No, because of the ashy, gray color. I thought God lit a fire and tossed one spent briquette into the night sky.”
“I guess that’s not any funnier than the story behind Orion’s Belt or Osiris.” Vanessa snuggled in closer. “Of course, that begs the question, where did God get the charcoal briquettes?”
“You know, I’ve never though of that.” Henry looked at her, bemused. “I guess I thought God got the same kind of bag at the grocery store that my Dad bought every time we had a barbeque.”
“Did I ever tell you your mind moves in mysterious ways, Henry?”

See how the past was introduced in the present? Note also that you are building character. Henry feels comfortable enough to slip an arm around Vanessa, and she is comfortable enough to snuggle in. So…they like each other. The conversation is silly, but the underlying meaning is revealed to us as implication – they are flirting, tucked in together, enjoying a lover’s moon. Game, set, match.

Activate your characters. Give them the present, and the future. Show, don’t tell.

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