Rules with a Reason #1 - Show Don't Tell
by Author/Editor Dina Sleiman
Most authors get tired of hearing about “the rules” of good fiction writing. In fact, based on some of the submissions I receive as a WhiteFire Publishing editor, I’ve come to realize that a number of agents ignore them as well. I’ve even had an agent say to me, “But they do it in secular fiction all the time.” Maybe that's so, but some of the stricter standards applied to Christian fiction developed because we had to be even better than our secular counterparts in order to play on the same field.
Now I am not a person to observe rules for the sake of rules. And I'll be quick to say that some writers cling to them too closely. But most of these rules serve a greater purpose. One of the rules I am strictest about when I content edit novels is the “show don’t tell" rule. At its heart, this rule is all about making your writing sizzle, pop, and jump off the page. In fact, when reading a book as an editor OR for pleasure, if I become bored and give up on it, excessive telling is often the reason. Maybe two decades ago when readers had to fork out another $10 or run to the local library to get a new book, boring telling might have cut it, but not today when we all have thirty more books cued up on our kindles.
To keep things interesting, you want to draw your reader into a sort of 3D, multi-sensory experience, similar to a dream state. Think some of the newer rides at Disney World complete with smells, puffs of wind, and rattling seats. You want your reader to feel like they have entered into your story world, and that they are living the experience with your point of view character. That is what show don’t tell really means. Thus, it is a highly important rule, but it is also often misunderstood. To help explain it better, I am going to break this rule into two components.
Micro Showing vs. Telling
At this level I’m talking about writing each sentence in a way that engages the reader and draws them into that dreamlike experience. This closely relates to other rules like avoiding "to be" verbs and using strong action verbs instead. You want your sentences to be vivid, active, and brimming with life. Does this mean you should never simply “tell” the reader anything? Not at all. If it takes a paragraph full of convoluted, boring showing to replace one simple, effective telling sentence, then choose telling. Just don’t overdo it. I would recommend that you keep the telling to 10% or less. And avoid telling as much as humanly possible in that all important first chapter. Also remember that there are both interesting and boring ways of telling information. So take that into consideration when making decisions about showing vs. telling.
Macro Showing vs. Telling
New writers often understand “show don’t tell” in the micro context, but not in this bigger context which closely relates to proper scene development. Another, more precise name for telling on a macro level would be narrative summary. I don't want to read a summary about a story; I want to read a story. Going back again to the dreamlike experience, in narrative summary we stop the dream so that someone can stand there and narrate the back story of the dream or the connection between two scenes in the dream. Or worst yet, they just stand there talking instead of showing the dream at all. (Sadly, I have received these submissions.)
Again, that is not to say there is never a time for a sparing amount of narrative summary. But if I get more than about a straight paragraph or two of it in the first two chapters, you’re losing me. Even deep into the book, if this continues for a page or two, I’m often out of there. And again, there are interesting and boring ways to deliver your narrative summary. If you have an exciting, first person, present tense narrator with a unique take on the situation who seems to be talking straight to the reader, you can get away with more narrative summary than if you have a very basic, third person, past tense narrator.
In my recent obsessive reading of YA dystopian novels, I noticed that I would often let the authors get away with narrative summary for several pages at a time without blinking an eye because they did it so well. However in book 2 of the Delirium series, the author pushed me too far with long passages of narrative summary that just weren't all that interesting and that contained very little tension. Snooze fest! If I hadn't promised my daughter I would read through to the end, the author would have lost me for sure. And that would have been a shame, because the series picked up in the second half of book 2 and book 3 was great.
Generally I advise authors to give clear cuts between scenes rather than trying to summarize what happens in the interim. Summarizing a chunk of time really only works if you can create an interesting, movie montage-like experience for your reader, which is super hard to do, especially without a catchy tune in the background. And as for back story, pepper it lightly throughout. Link it to current action. Weave it into dialogue. As much as possible, save it for later in the book. And if it continues for more than a page or two, consider a separate flashback scene.
So remember, the “show don’t tell” rule has a good reason behind it. Editors want your book to be engaging and exciting. If you send a book to a Christian publisher with a lot of telling, chances are about 98% that we’ll turn you down. And of the two percent that make the cut, chances are still high that we’ll make you remove the telling in edits. Focus on that dreamlike experience for your readers, and you’re likely to get this rule right.
Which books have completely drawn you into a dreamlike state? Have you ever been so wrapped up in a story world that you dreamed about it while you slept?
Dina Sleiman writes stories of passion and grace. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. She also serves as an acquisitions and content editor for WhiteFire Publishing. Check out her novels Dance from Deep Within, Dance of the Dandelion, and Love in Three-Quarter Time, and look for her Valiant Hearts series coming with Bethany House Publishers in 2015. For more info visit her at http://dinasleiman.com/