In a playwriting class that I took for many years, over and over, our instructor Mick would remind us that “action precedes explanation.” This is basically just another way of saying, “show don’t tell.” When you’re writing a play, this is key because a play unfolds in time and space: it’s action oriented. It doesn’t have a narrative flow to it, so you have to use action to convey information — and not the other way around.
But even if you’re working on a novel, where narrative drive carries the story forward, it’s still important to go for drama rather than too much exposition. Here’s writing coach Natalie Goldberg puts it, “Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them. Writing is not psychology. We do not talk ‘about’ feelings. Instead, the writer feels and through her words awakens those feelings in the reader. The writer takes the reader’s hands and guides him through the valley of sorrows and joy without ever having to mention those words.”
Wonderful advice — but how do you make it work on the page? Here are a few ideas:
Don’t sit outside your story: As writers, we’re observers; we stand outside the action and we describe it. And because we’re omniscient observers, we’re bigger than the action we describe — we encompass it. But we also have to step inside the action and describe what’s happening, not just from the outside in, but from the inside out. As Natalie Goldberg puts it, we need to “breathe the life into it.”
Don’t edit: When you’re in draft mode, stay with your first ideas, the first flashes of word play and inspiration. These flashes come from the deep feeling part of you and they have emotional energy that a reader will connect with.
Be there: Put yourself in the moment you’re writing about — see it, taste it, touch it, hear it. Use the language of the sense to capture its emotional flavor (see Roasted Figs).
As we bring more immediacy to our writing through showing, let’s not forget Lee Child’s advice about not getting too hung up on the “show, don’t tell” writing rule (see Budding Writers). Feeling compelled to “show” can slow a story down and even exhaust readers emotionally. So work to strike a balance between the two in a way that feels right for the story you’re unfolding for your audience. And write on!