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#atozchallenge: S is for Show, Don’t Tell #fiction #writing #quotes

 Theme: Quotes from Authors and Bookish People about Writing

I’ve been doing the AZ rounds, and enjoying myself, making new discoveries, meeting new readers and writers. What about you?

Today on Amlokiblogs I want to discuss the sage advice given to writers, “Show don’t tell.”

Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds
of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action,
words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s
exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the
reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to
interpret significant details in the text. The technique applies equally
to nonfiction and all forms of fiction, including literature, speech, movie making, and playwriting.

I have to admit that this piece of advice/ technique has improved my writing, but one of the things I learned is that the difficult part of the skill lies not in “Show don’t tell’, but in making a choice: what and when do you show, and when do you tell? Sometimes I end up summarising an important event in my story while writing about a minor one in a detailed scene. Does this ever happen to you?

Here are a few writers talking about this technique

“Show the readers everything, tell them
― Ernest
to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long
sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by
telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes
novice writers to think that everything should be acted out — don’t tell us a
character is happy, show us how she screams “yay” and jumps up and
down for joy — when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by
the energetic and specific use of language.”
― Francine Prose
  “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me
the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov

“You don’t write about the horrors of war.
No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying in the road.”
― Richard Price
Have you ever come across writing which could do better with less showing and more telling? Which of the quotes above do you agree with and why?
Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • All three are great quotes. There needs to be a balance. The problem arises in figuring out how much to show and how much to tell. Books (or stories) are not movies or a tv episode. There are times when telling or back-story is important for the reader to understand the dynamics of a relationship, a character, or an event happening on the page.

  • Telling is boring, while showing requires more imagination on the part of the reader. I enjoyed your quotes.

  • Fantastic quotes on the importance of showing.

  • klahanie says:

    Hi Damyanti,

    Show, but don't tell. A concept that I have been known to use. In my case, the reader is part of the story and they draw their own conclusions. Chekov's is a quote I can relate to.

    How are you doing, Damyanti?

    Your friend,

    Gary 🙂

  • shelly says:

    Helpful quotes!

  • I think each of those quotes tells it like it is, but in a different way. It would be true to say that at least half of my own writing is 'tell' during the first draft, just so that I can get the story out. The second pass is when I amend the 'telling' and show the majority of it. I use dialogue sometimes to tell, and I think it works if it's not overdone.

  • Ernest Hemingway and Chekov's quotes compliment each other. I like these quotes and it is something I do try to follow, especially after getting this advice early in my writing career. Don't know if I succeed each time , but do my best.

  • mooderino says:

    Hemingway cuts to the heart of the matter as usual.

    Moody Writing

  • Loved the chekov quote

  • S.K. Anthony says:

    Oooh I like Chekhov's quote! I still struggle with it I think, that's why I like stepping back from my work and go back after a little break to see it more clearly. It helps. But I know more practice will surely help. 😉

  • I'm like you, I tend to mix it up, otherwise my books would be a thousand pages long.

  • I struggled with the concept until I read Jessica Bell's book. Now I can see 'tell' in my work – and know how to fix it!

  • cleemckenzie says:

    I love to summarize. That's the best way for me to get a scene down. I'll go back later and break that summary down into action and dialogue.

  • I knew it was a good idea when I started following you during this #atozchallenge. Thanks for this good info. I love the quotes. I used the Anton Chechov quote not to long ago on my author FB page. Love it.

  • TheCyborgMom says:

    I'm going to have to show this to my daughter…she's the writer in the family 🙂 Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday!

  • I've adopted the counter variation, since any attempt to "show" any piece of writing will never create the same image in the reader's mind that the author has in their mind. But if an imagine is created, mission accomplished. It's the director/the artist's job to show. Authors are storytellers. We tell, but the question is, are we telling effectively? 🙂

  • Show, don't tell is a real toughie, because, as you say, it is all about knowing when to tell and when to show. I sometimes rely on my betas and editors to tell me if I've got it wrong, and I do the same when I'm editing/betaing for other people, because, as a writer, I find myself too close to text sometimes, it's in my head and I just plain get it wrong. 🙂
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  • Hi, Damyanti,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier…

    Although we ALL know this rule, I feel at times there is a certain beauty in telling… Especially when it comes to children… they say "Tell me a story…" Not show. and the Classic "Once upon a time…" will and SHOULD NEVER go out of fashion. It's magical.