Show vs Tell

Yesterday, I had to read this loooong chapter. Or maybe it just seemed long, because almost ALL of it was Tell (narrative exposition). It was SO impersonal, so detailed, so irrelevant, so boring, it was to all intents and purposes unreadable. I kept asking...Is this relevant? Why do we need this here? Do we need this at all? How are all these details pertinent to the story?

Tell (narrative exposition) is passive, the complete opposite of dynamic prose (Show). All those unnecessary details slow the reader down and take away from the tension. Think of it as Tell = Being lectured to, while Show = Watching a play or a movie (with important genre distinctions, of course).

Me: Daiva, you’ve highlighted a lot of Tell vs Show passages in my stories. How would you coach someone who finds it difficult to distinguish between Show vs Tell?

Daiva: I would just mark everything and ask for a rewrite leaning on the POV character’s experience. If you look at the scene through the PoV character’s eyes and know his backstory (and therefore his motivation), you will know what he thinks and how he feels and what his reactions and responses should be.

Me: Yes, I remember you helping me through many scenes by reminding me to get deep into a character’s backstory. Until we have that information, it’s hard to write a compelling close 3rd scene.

D: Show is one of the most common novice writer mistakes I come across. It sometimes reminds me of Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris”. If Hugo could go into details, why can’t modern-day authors? Well, back in the time of classical literature, not many people could travel and see Notre Dame. Now we have photos, detailed images. A reader’s time is limited, so if you want to convey a very detailed backdrop, if you can see everything in your mind's eye, maybe you need to draw it and use that as your marketing material.

Me: Right, we need to remember that we are writing for a modern audience whose attention span is getting shorter. So, what does the modern reader want?

D: What modern readers are expecting is a balance between action (plot) and inner reflection (PoV). Everything that goes onto the page should be reflected from a character’s POV or perspective, without forgetting about the action.

Me: Yes, most of us are writing in 3rd or 1st PoV, and this means getting inside a character’s head, knowing who they are as a person, what makes them tick, their motivation, hopes and desires. It’s about knowing our character’s character. What else?

D: Momentum is very important - the reader is interested in what is happening right now. We are living right now; we don’t need to cling to the past or the future, because we can’t do anything there. This doesn’t mean that your MC shouldn’t refer to their past. They absolutely should because that’s what makes them who they are now. And future goals move the plot along.

D: But in writing, going in front of events is rarely needed. Focus on the current moment and do not impose your (narrator’s) conclusions about what’s happening.

Me: Ah, yes. We’re not writing in omniscient PoV, so we really need to get ourselves out of the way.

D: Yes, make your MC wonder and explore the world around them. Use body language to show them reacting to events instead of stating “he is worried, she is angry”. The description of an angry outburst or longing is much stronger than one word describing it (worried, angry, etc.). Highlight the importance of MC’s emotions by giving the reader time to stay with MC and experience their emotions.

Me: Right, so it’s about keeping the PoV tight. The tighter or closer the PoV, the more immersive the read, because the reader gets to understand that character and, hopefully, will feel what they are feeling. That’s awesome. Thanks, D! As always, most enlightening.