Show and Tell

More issues I’m coming across in my reading travels.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before: repetition is not your friend. May I add that repetition under the context of style is okay, but again, it has to make sense. And even too much repetition in the name of style can very easily and quickly turn into overkill and come across as comedic.

That aside, I’ve read plenty of “show don’t tell,” and plenty of “tell don’t show.” But what really irks me is when I see both working in overtime.

For example: a character finds herself in an awkward situation. Her speech is stuttered and her dialogue alone conveys her anxiety. That’s fine. But then the author, after closing up her stilted speech, proceeds using at least two to three adjectives explaining to the reader that the character is nervous.

My reaction? “Hey. I already heard what the character said, and I’m convinced she’s nervous. But now I just read ‘She said nervously.’ I got it the first time. Wait, there’s more? Did I just read another two sentences of flowery and random metaphoric descriptions explaining to me that the character is nervous?? After a paragraph of this nonsense, now the conversation continues… and the person she was talking to didn’t even notice that she was nervous! Argh!!”wtfamiseeing2plz

I’m insulted. And I also feel like I’m wasting my time reading superfluous sentences of unnecessary description.

Lesson Learned

Stating the obvious is a real turn-off to the reader.

Take the above example, for instance. The stuttering dialogue is a good way of ‘showing’ nervousness. And if the character isn’t able to speak, then showing twitching muscles and nervous ticks would be another way of ‘showing’. Pick one of the other. But it can’t be both, unless one action leads to another that affects the plot. As in, nervous speech leads to tugging on hair leads to accidentally pulling out implants and now the entire audience is having a good time watching her have a fit.

So pick one. Or the other. And if there must be both, keep one of them minimal or else the reader will feel as if you’re talking down to them.

3 responses to “Show and Tell

  1. Interestingly enough, if you also eschew using too many adverbs, this problem will self-correct. ‘She said nervously’ is not just repeating the obvious, it is also insisting on using an unnecessary adverb.

    I’m all for adverbs, and don’t go around shooting them like passenger pigeons, looking to make them extinct. They’re there for a purpose, a solid grammatical purpose, and are necessary.

    But you have to trust your readers to pick up cues, as you said. I read somewhere that you should supply 50% of the story and let the reader supply the rest out of his/her imagination. Works for me.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Precisely. Much of great literature, specifically in reference to classic literature, places the reader’s intelligence on a pedestal. Another reason why I prefer the classics to modern. Modern literature becomes too vague — though I’m sure readers 200 from years now may differ in opinion.

    Questions that arise while reading keep the reader reading. Great point you’ve made! Adjectives and adverbs are tools, not to be abused and overused to the point of bludgeoning.


  3. I detest and boycott all fiction that follows the “show, don’t tell” commandments; consequently, I will not be deterred by any of your censorship from proudly writing lots of expositions, adverbs, prologues, passive sentences.


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