We’ve all heard the prime directive: show don’t tell. Newbies discuss it endlessly on writing loops. We have incredible quotes like: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” from Anton Chekov.
Great. But in the end, what does that really mean?
The way I look at it, I have certain traps I consistently fall into. A laziness, something I always do a little too heavily, tells that betray the story as a first draft. You will have other tells, other beloved darlings you must murder.
My biggest tell — without asking one of my editors to flay me publically — is repetition. A little deliberate repetition can be powerful, sure, but typically I tell something, and then I show the exact same thing. Obviously showing is stronger, and the repetition actually kills whatever power I managed to envoke.
For instance, just last night I stumbled across the following: She reacted immediately. [telling] She slammed her knee on his elbow and pinned his advancing arm beneath her weight. [showing] Easy fix: I deleted the first sentence entirely.
Another kind of repetition I tend to overdo: Once, she’d believed. She’d believed that love was the greatest gift of all. I do this a lot with fragments for some reason. This too is an easy fix: Once, she’d believed that love was the greatest gift of all. Cleaner, tighter, and not redundant.
Another tell I get away with in the first draft is telling my characters’ emotion instead of showing it. As I go through Revision Hell, I look for these tells — she felt [emotion] — and then expand to include nonverbal communication or physical responses to show that emotion. If she felt angry, maybe her temples throbbed and she tightened her jaws. If she felt sick, her stomach churned.
One last tell I’m looking for: she saw or she heard. These can be distancing from the action and emotion of the scene. If we’re in deep third, we don’t need to say: she saw the sword coming for her head. We can simply say: the sword sliced toward her head. Similarly, she heard the white knife clash against her sword can be simplified to the white knife clashed against her sword.
Okay, back to Revision Hell for me. Do you have a particular TELL that is too much TELLING?