At some point in a writer’s career, the mantra Show, Don’t Tell has crept into a conversation or been the sole focus of a seminar at a writing conference.
It’s a tired phrase, but so true. In journalism, this little phrase is burned into every writing cell in a reporter’s body. Every story must show the reader the facts. Even a breaking news story has some details that give readers a glimpse of a crime scene, whether it’s details about heart-wrenching sobs of a victim’s family or the flashing lights of patrol cars lighting up a street on an overcast night.
No, writers don’t have to show everything in a book or short story or freelance article. But the scenes that carry weight – the ones that impact plot or give readers much-needed insight into a character’s psyche – need detail to put the reader right inside that scene.
Pick these scenes carefully. Keep them tightly focused. Don’t write whimsical prose that will leave readers feeling like they’ve just stepped off onto a weird adventure on the Yellow Brick Road. Make every word count. Edgar Allen Poe chose each word of every piece he wrote very carefully.
Check this out:
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. POE
Okay, so Poe might not be the best example for some of you out there. So let’s use a little 21st century prose to drive the point home:
Ted set the can on the counter and answered the door.
In this sentence, we know someone’s at the door, but we as readers don’t know how the character feels. If it’s in the book, then there’s a reason for the sentence’s presence. Let’s try it with a bit more umphf.
Ted jumped as someone pounded on the his front door. Sweat beaded on his forehead. His hands shook. The can in his hand tipped, spilling cola down the front of his favorite Kansas City Chiefs T-shirt. He took a deep breath and carefully set the can on the counter. He straightened his back and turned toward the door.
See? We get more insight into Ted, and the person outside the door.
Don’t worry so much on the first draft. If you are in the zone, get the details down. Later, you can worry about fleshing it out.0