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The definitive guide to “show, don’t tell”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is great advice…in theory. In practice, it’s not that simple. We asked six acclaimed authors for their best advice on finding the right balance between the two elements in fiction.

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Choosing the right amount of details

How do you show – that is, make your fiction vividly and dramatically alive – without overdoing it? This amounts to a fine balancing act between too little and too much. Too little, and your characters and the world they inhabit don’t feel real; too much, and you overwhelm your reader.

The first question for Perinot is, “Have I been offered enough description to be sucked fully into the world of the story?” On the other hand, “Is there so much description that I am bored or get lost, leaving me thinking ‘Wait, where am I?’ when the action resumes?” As a reader, she doesn’t like feeling disoriented: “I’ve been set adrift in a book simply because an author got carried away describing a dress, a room, a sunset…to the point where I forget what the characters were doing prior to the description.

“Every word must have a purpose,” continues Perinot. “Show me what is necessary and meaningful. The more detail you give me about a thing, person, or place, the more I expect that detail to reveal something insightful about a character and/or prove otherwise significant at a later point in your story.” For her, it’s not “quantity” that counts, but “quality” – it’s what’s relevant, what’s purposeful, in terms of the characters and story: “A handful of well-selected, pithy, memorable details can build a world quickly or bring a scene/character vividly to life.”

For Sickels, too, relevancy should be the guiding principle in determining which details to include. “You’re not just piling on detail for the sake of description but searching for the significant, revealing details that can light up a scene or a character. A few key details can go a long way. I almost always over-research and overwrite, and with each draft, I cut the extraneous, insignificant details, so that each draft grows leaner and tighter and yet fuller.”

In writing scenes, Scharer tries to be as highly selective as she can: “For me, creating vivid fiction comes down to finding the one perfect detail to replace the six not-so-perfect details. My first draft might have the six details, and when I read it over, the scene feels foggy, like an underexposed photograph.” It’s in the revision stage that she chooses “the most interesting detail” in the lot. Getting readers to concentrate on that one particular detail helps bring the scene “into focus for them.” For her, this amounts to the one “sensory hook” that evokes the right emotion.

Economy is also important to Mustafah. “I hold to the idea that every phrase, every sentence should be in service to the story. With that in mind, I’ve learned to first write in order to get characters and story on the page – I begin with a skeleton.” Once she has that in place, she sets out to “build upon the bones, fleshing out details. I ask myself: ‘What needs extended description? What can be literal, and when can figurative language pack a stronger punch? What can I trust the reader to see immediately, and what mustn’t I omit?’”

One final thing to keep in mind is credibility. In one of his recent stories, “Gun Comfort,” Fincke notes, “I had to choose exactly the right rifle a gun enthusiast would give to his teenage daughter. Likewise, I had to know how that rifle would feel in her hands – its weight, its length, its balance, its recoil – because she would know. One false detail destroys credibility.”

Showing and telling

Vivid imagery certainly connects your reader with the world they’re familiar with – one that they experience with their five senses. But this doesn’t mean that you should give up telling entirely. Is Hemingway right when he says: “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing?” One thing is clear: Fiction needs to immerse readers in a story world. Fiction isn’t real life, but it must give us a profound sense of real life.

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Jack Smith is the author of six novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews.

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