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The Top Manuscript Mistakes I See - Show Don't Tell

What Show Don't Tell Really Means and What to do About it

Most of us have heard the old adage of show don't tell, but what does it really mean and why is it important?

What it Means?

Let's do a little experiment here to highlight what this means. I want you to print out the first chapter of your current manuscript and get out a highlighter. Next I want you to read said chapter and I want you to picture that it is being played out like a movie in your own personal mind scape. Fun stuff, I know. Feel free to use any actor you like. They'll never know.

Now, each time the main actor playing the protagonist (Let's say it's Tom Cruise) stops and turns to face the camera and addresses the audience directly, that means you have launched into telling. Use your highlighter to highlight these passages. This will allow you to go through you manuscript and get a visual on just how much telling you are doing.

For example, your character is going along trying to solve a murder, suddenly you decide that the reader needs to know that your story is set during the great depression. You decide to give the reader this important information by launching into several paragraphs of backstory. You tell all about how much poor Tom has been through since the stock market crashed and Tom's father, a well known stock broker committed suicide. Now he has to solve his landlords murder of his brother is going to prison for a crime he didn't commit etc., etc. You then pat yourself on the back for your ample creativity feeling that you have done your authorly duty. Here's the thing though, while your brain may have needed to go through this process in order to figure out what your story is all about, it isn't a fun way to experience the story for your readers. Readers want the mental movie. Also, they can usually discern what they need to know from context and they like filling in the rest of the mental picture on their own.

Here's Why.

Let's go back to your mental movie. We've all seen the occasional film or tv show that used the asides I mentioned above. They can be a lot of fun because it makes you feel like you're part of an inside joke. Ferris Buehler's Day Off would be a good example. However, how many of those asides could you tolerate before being like, "Enough already, Just get back to the story." Not many and here's why, each time the actor speaks to the camera, the action of the story stops. It's like filling your story with proverbial stoplights and no one likes waiting at a stop light. Well, no one that I know anyway.

What to do and Can it be Eliminated Entirely?

These proverbial stoplights are usually when readers decide to take a bathroom break, grab a snack, or see what's out on Netflix. For this reason, they should be avoided. So now that you know what they are, you may be wondering if it's possible to avoid it completely. The answer is no. There will be moments where it's necessary, but because of the reasons outlined above, you want to be very careful with how much telling you do. Now go back the chapter I had you highlight earlier. Go through the highlighted text and use the following questions:

  1. Does the reader have to know this for the story to make sense?

  2. Can I show this information to the reader in a different way.

If the answer to number one is no, then it is time to murder some darlings. Yes, I know that it hurts. But your manuscript will thank you.

If the answer is yes, then now you must run it through question number two. If you also answer yes to question two, then change it up and present it in a way that is now showing.

If the answer to question two is no, then I give you permission to leave it. For now anyway. I can be a little brutal. I murder darlings to save manuscripts everywhere. It's just what I do.


I hope this helps you to understand the difference. I'd love to hear your questions. Feel free to comment and let me know if you found this helpful.

Until then, happy writing!

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