Revision “Tell, Don’t Show”: or, Don’t Bore the Reader to Tears


Far too many freshman stories begin with the character waking up, getting dressed, having something to eat, going to work, all in complete detail. Part of this habit comes from Dinosaur Fiction, from before WW2. When it comes to modeling your work on it, anything before 1980 is kind of suspect in romance and before 1970 in specfi, though in other fields you can touch back as far as 1960 or so. We can also blame movies. They Show under the credits the sort of scenes we must Tell.

The freshman writer has been told “Show, don’t Tell” and gone overboard.

In fiction, there are almost always places to Tell rather than Show.

Take the trip from Point A to B. If nothing happens that changes character relationships or plot direction, you don’t need to Show it. Sum it up as, “Three days of travel with only two pirate attacks to fight off brought them to …”

“Skip two pirate attacks?!” you yelp.

Yes, please, and sex scenes between established lovers. If the pirate attacks or sex don’t cause any dramatic changes — nagging doubts, greater trust, reveal layers of the character needed as foreshadowing — you Tell rather than Show the reader past the over-rated sex and violence to what really matters: the drama of the story.

Even huge sagas can’t include everything as on-stage action. So somewhere, sometime — lots of times — you will condense even things that would be exciting hoo-hah on screen but in written fiction are a lot of verbiage that’s off the point. You make a story exciting, not with tinsel hula-skirts hoo-hah — lots of cheap flash with not much to it — but with worsenings and reverses and clever triumphs.

So re-writing is commonly deletion. Blitzers especially get a lot of stuff down, but have to look at it afterward and decide on the core story, the important sub-plots, and start trimming off fat. If what the character had for breakfast doesn’t matter to the plot, not only do you not Show that long wake-up-and-get-ready, you don’t even bother Telling it.

Your checklist for when to Tell rather than Show:

  • Nothing much happens, but you describe the scenery and routine.
    There are no plot reversals nor disasters worsening the plot difficulties.
  • The characters have no dramatic scenes between them that change their relationships for better or worse.
  • Nothing is revealed or foreshadowed, or the scenes exist only to foreshadow.
  • You know you put this in only to fill pages until you think of something actually interesting, or you have been leaving it in because you feel that otherwise the section is boring.

Scenes of detailed nothing happening are worse than saying nothing happened, or skipping on. You don’t fix boring by more routine in greater detail, but by making something real happen or speeding past this to the next scene that matters.

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