‘Show don’t tell.’ That’s pretty solid writing advice, right? I mean, it’s advice almost everyone has heard. But what does it mean?
Exposition Is Bad – Usually
When you hear ‘show don’t tell,’ what someone is trying to tell you is to avoid exposition. Rather than telling your reader very explicitly ‘Lex Luthor is a bad man,’ you need to reveal his character through his interactions with others. SHOW us that Lex Luthor is a bad guy; maybe he forecloses on an orphanage, or kicks a dog, or forecloses on a dog orphanage.
A character’s true nature comes across in their interactions with others. This is especially effective when you can employ dramatic irony (I did a post on dramatic tension already).
Make Your Prose Style Match Your Character
This is really a pro tip. If you can pull this off you’ll bring your reader that much further into the story without them knowing why or how.
When you make your prose match your character, you change your own writing style to suit the character who is the focus. (This assumes, of course, that you have more than one character as your focus). If you have a sharp, no-nonsense character, when they’re the focus your prose should be equally sharp and no-nonsense. Use shorter words, shorter sentences, less florid description
When your character is more sympathetic, however, more in touch with their feelings, your prose should match that outlook. More introspection, more value judgements, more doubt.
This is hard to do, especially when you’re trying to figure out your own writing style. But if you practice it, and do it well, it’s a seamless way to show, rather than tell.
Sometimes Exposition Can Be A Good Thing
I know, I know, I keep saying one thing, then saying its opposite. What a tool… But it’s true, sometimes exposition is the best way to show something rather than telling.
That is, if you have a character tell. In their own voice. Think of the reveal for almost every police procedural you’ve ever seen. One character usually does the explaining, laying out the connected details of the crime. Not only is this the payoff for the story you’ve built, it’s the ‘show don’t tell’ part of revealing the criminal’s true nature. It’s the one time exposition is better, so you can’t do it all the time. But it absolutely works.