Writing Tip 20: Show don't tell.

By: Belinda Aycrigg

They say show don’t tell…

A complete fledging in the world of novel writing, my first tentative attempt, as Siobhan Harvey my mentor at AUT pointed out, did not even merit the label 'first draft'. It was simply extended notes, strung like Christmas lights from one plot point to the next. The next draft was not much better, certainly not eligible to be entered for a Masters degree.

            After a brief freak out, it was back to the drawing board for an intense marathon to get the thing nailed within the already extended timeframe. Eventually it was time for the final verdict. With some trepidation, I entered Siobhan's study and sat watching her face for tell tale signs… But… Hallelujah! She smiled! This time my fledgling novel was deemed, if not brilliant, at least adequate. I leapt out of my chair and almost flung my arms around my poor mentor (who to be fair had given much of her summer holidays to reading my tome).

            So what made the difference?

            I remember Siobhan with a pained look on her face, previously pleading with me to expand my notes; there was far too much telling. What I needed to do was focus on individual episodes, anchoring the story to reality, to specifics, to particular events revealed by the actions and interactions of the characters. I needed to expand my telling into full blow- by- blow scenes. I needed to show not tell.

            My initial attempt at this, as a playwright, produced scenes chock full of dialogue. The page looked more like a play script, with the addition of innumerable 'said's. It was a start however and I discovered that opening up a scene by recording specifics, by anchoring it to action even if it was only verbal action at first, already made a huge difference. Now the dialogue needed to be interspersed frequently with physical action and concrete specifics of what was happening right there in the scene, in minute detail. This last created a quantum leap in the development of the story.

            On reflection, I realise that show don't tell is not just about describing the story more vividly for the reader. Showing the scene, actually getting down and immersing myself in the specific moment by moment happenings of a scene, has an almost mystical effect; a certain alchemy occurs almost like baking bread, whereby the result is something altogether transformed from the ingredients initially mixed in the pan. Then it's not about getting from one plot point to another. Then the story and the characters take themselves off down creative avenues that I hadn't anticipated…