How To Write A Novel: The First-Time Author's Course

The magic of show don’t tell

Writers come in all shapes and sizes. Some swear by elaborate flowery prose; others cling staunchly to minimalism. Some craft encyclopaedic storyworlds, whereas others are perfectly content placing one guy in one room. Across the board, though, there’s a single phrase you’ll keep hearing over and over and over: show, don’t tell

And that’s a little odd, when you think about it. Earlier in this class, I told you there are no rules in writing — yet this universal mantra seems like a pretty straightforward command. It’s not, though: if you’re okay with losing some of its catchiness, I’d like you to read it like this: “when in doubt: show, don’t tell.”

The reason this phrase is so pervasive is the same reason I made you go out with a machete in the previous lesson: when we first start writing, we tend to be far too obvious in what we write. Is the house big? Have your characters ponder how big the house is. Is your antagonist evil? Have someone describe them as evil. Are his eyes blue? “He had blue eyes.”

That’s exactly what telling is: taking your info and serving it on a silver platter. It’s efficient, sure, but not particularly gripping for anyone to read. When we say show don’t tell, we’d like you to do the exact opposite: if a character is evil, show that character doing something evil. After all, your readers are clever, eager and very judgemental — it’s up to you to make sure you use those traits to your advantage. 

Of course, there’s a time and a place for telling, too. Most notably, it helps you control pacing: while showing may be a more compelling form of writing, it also takes more words and therefore slows down the story. For minor descriptions, one-off characters or anything similarly non-essential to the story, telling can be a great way to provide quick information without losing the momentum. 

But in most cases, showing is what makes the world go round. For your last assignment in this course, here’s what I’d like you to do:

Go back to your first scene. Find something you’ve been telling, and show it instead.

You can really pick anything: a character trait; an emotion; a piece of backstory — whatever it is you’d like to get across to your reader. It’s fine to start out with something obvious, like someone evil kicking a puppy or someone angry clenching a fist. With enough time and practice, you’ll soon set out much more intricate dots for your reader to connect.

When you’re all well and good, let’s wrap up the class.

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About the author

Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Very fond of semicolons.

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about the teacher

Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Very fond of semicolons.

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