Fifth Commandment

Thou Shalt Prefer Showing to Telling

“Show, don’t tell.” You’ll hear this a lot when seeking advice on how to improve your prose fiction. Another version of this might be, “Describe, don’t just identify.” In any case, the warning here is that simply naming a person, place, object, action, thought or feeling is never as engaging as describing those same things.

After all, there are so many unique versions of those things; plus, so many unique circumstances under which even the same particular things might be experienced differently. For example, the very same apple could “gleam a brilliant red-orange in the harsh light of the burning sun” or it could appear as “a deep burgundy against a vast, moon-lit walkway of clean white pebbles. “

Granted, one can overdo sensorial description to the point of the poor reader gagging on adjectives. However, if, at some point in your narration, you would like to enhance the reader’s emotional state or hope that they will intuit the great themes of your tale, you would do well to avoid, “There was an apple on the ground”… unless, perhaps, banality is the theme of choice.

The other side of “Show don’t tell” is having enough respect for, and trust in, your readers’ intelligence. If one of your characters “widens her eyes and drops her jaw,” your reader will enjoy picturing the face. They will participate in interpreting the expression (as if they were there in the story seeing the reaction) and infer the emotion of shock behind it. If instead you simply tell the reader that “she looked surprised,” then all of that picturing, interpreting and inferring (a.k.a. engagement) is chucked right out the window.  And, for heaven’s sake, don’t belabor the reader with a “show and tell” — “She widened her eyes and dropped her jaw in a look of surprise.”


Bottom Line for FQP Submissions:

If you submit a manuscript that reveals a persistent lack of description, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with more showing and less telling, or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the description deficiencies (typically from $50 – $200.)


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