“Show, Don’t Tell”
This short phrase represents one of the very most core distinctions between being a writer and being a great writer.
The Big Idea:
Maybe not everyone here is as big of an English nerd as I am, but have you even read a passage in a book that was so well written that it just sent a tingle down your spine? One that you had to stop reading for a second to just admire how perfectly it was worded? Or even a scene in a movie that is so well written it makes you sort of jumpy and you get that “Yes! That makes perfect sense now!” feeling. The kind that makes you so excited that you want to turn to someone and say “Get it!? Because she said _____ in the beginning!?” but of course everyone already gets it because the scene was just so flawless.
Usually these are the passages where the author sums up a theme or where some major plot element ties together without the author directly telling you that it’s being wrapped up. It’s usually a passage that is heavy with symbolism and key words, one that links back to a previous moment of foreshadowing, or one that provides an important insight into a character. These moments wouldn’t be as intensely satisfying if the author just came out and told you exactly what they meant, the reason they are so satisfying is because the author guides you, as the reader, into figuring it out for yourself.
Obviously your story will not be all big reveal moments that need to be cleverly crafted but it will be important to sprinkle your novel with key words, clues, and the like that will help you better be able to show the reader later when your story eventually does come together.
You should also be trying to incorporate this technique into your prose because overall, even for the mundane things, it is more fun to read when you have to deduce some of the elements for yourself. You don’t want you just be telling your reader about what happens to the characters, you want them to be able to experience what is happening to the characters. You don’t want to just tell them what is happening, you want to show them how it’s happening.
1. “Maya was broke and burdened with debt. She knew she deserved a raise, after all she was the best barista in the whole coffee house.”
2. Maya expertly pressed espresso and steamed milk, pulling levers here and pouring streams of hot delicious beverages into ceramic mugs and paper cups there. The aroma of darkly roasted coffee swirling around her as she spun around the coffee counter like she was practicing a choreographed dance. She smiled as handed customers their beverages and wished them a good day, especially the sleepy or grumpy ones. It was a grey, gloomy day outside but she was sure her chipper attitude and the glorious caffeinated elixir they were about to partake in would be a much needed pick-me-up!
When the morning rush died down and the regulars were all settled with their books and laptops sipping their chai lattes and cappuccinos, Maya untied her apron and leaned on the counter with her phone in her hands. She popped open her mobile banking app and scrolled through the recent transactions for a while then let out a tired sigh.
An old man sitting on the couch furrowed his bushy brows and folded his newspaper, “What’s up buttercup? Student loan payments coming again?” Maya looked up from her phone “You know me Merv, always trying to make ends meet…” He frowned a bit and said with a hint of derision “Anthony still only paying you minimum wage, huh?” Maya let out a short chuckle but just nodded.
Merv got up and put a five in the tip jar before heading out, Maya smiled appreciatively and said to have fun at physical therapy. She tied her apron back up and began to sweep the floors, pausing only to glance up at her picture on the wall under the words “Employee of the Month!”
In both options the next sentence or paragraph could still easily be an action that leads to your next plot point, but they are both very different approaches. The first example tells you that Maya is broke, that she needs a raise and that she is the best barista. Whereas the second example shows you how Maya is the best barista, it lets you discover for yourself that she is broke and then through dialogue leads you to the conclusion that she deserves a raise.
You can see this is also and important distinction to make for NaNoWriMo because you can turn a 25 word leading sentence into 275 word chapter introduction while simultaneously making your story more interesting to read.
This was a previous writing prompt we posted, it was also an exercise from one of my fiction writing classes in college and probably one of my most favorite writing exercise ever: http://writrs.tumblr.com/post/18519594456/
If you find yourself stuck on this concept take a break from writing and try the prompt! make sure you pay very close attention and stick to the rules! You can even use your MC from your NaNo novel instead of one of the characters on the list and if you end up liking it, add it to your word count!