"Show, Don't Tell" means "Dramatize, don't summarize." It means to tell a story in scenes.
Dramatize, Don't Summarize!
"Show, Don't Tell" means "Dramatize, don't summarize." It means to tell a story in scenes. Remember to immerse the reader in the main character's experience, telling what that character does, sees, hears, smells, tastes, feels, thinks, and remembers during each scene.
Is there a time to summarize instead of dramatize? Of course: when the events are not significant to the plot or to the reader's understanding of the characters, summarize.
Here are a few examples that best illustrate my point:
"He went to the window and looked out." This is a summary statement. One
way to test this is to apply the "short test," which consists of the simplest
sentence or Actor - Action or Noun - Verb structure.
"He went" - Does this engage the imagination? Does it make a picture? Can one
see him "wenting"?
If "went" is too general and non-specific, perhaps we can improve by selecting a
more active verb.
"He walked to the window and looked out." Short test: "he walked" - Can one
imagine him walking? Can one picture it? If so, this is a more dramatic way of
stating/describing his actions.
The good thing about "walk" is the number of synonyms (part of why I chose
"He strolled to the window."
"He crept to the window."
"He swaggered to the window."
"He ambled to the window."
"He staggered to the window," and more.
When the short test is applied, all these verbs produce specific images. Even
more importantly, the images have specific emotional connotations. "He strolled"
feels quite different from "He crept" or "He swaggered."
Successful fiction also involves the reader's emotions. Therefore, if one can
select verbs that engage the imagination and involve the emotions, shouldn't those be the preferred choice, especially if one's intent is to dramatize rather than
Apply the short test to "to be" forms:
"She is" - Can you see this?
"She was" - Can one picture her "wassing?"
Fact is, verbs such as "looks/looked" or the "to be" forms are what I think of as
conditional verbs. The use or meaning of the verb is conditional on additional
information. "She looks" might become "She looks up" or "She looks tired." "She
is" may become "She is beautiful" or "She is president of the bank" or various other possibilities. In every case, to make a conditional verb into something one can imagine, picture, or feel, one must add more information. Conditional verbs are not bad usage, but they often lessen the dramatic impact. Conditional verbs are better for summing up and drawing connections than they are for dramatizing.
One may also apply the "short test" to nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Broad
category nouns, such as "vehicle, animal, fruit" are harder to imagine/picture than
specific examples; thus, the often repeated guideline that it is better to use specifics
than general types. The same applies to adjectives. As for adverbs, the most
common problem with them is that they summarize actions rather than
"Do you think they'll really come?" he asked anxiously. The "anxiously" sums
up. To dramatize one might write: He shifted from foot to foot. "Do you think
they'll really come?"
Just in case I've only managed to confuse the issue, here's one final set of examples that
(1) Jim hit Sam in the nose. (A summary statement.)
(2) Jim poked Sam in the nose. (A more active verb, a verb one can more easily
imagine/picture, but still basically a summary.)
(3) Jim threw a stiff right jab, catching Sam flush on the nose. Cartilage crunched
and Sam's head snapped back. Blood spurted, splattering crimson drops onto Sam's
white tee shirt.
"Not fair, man." Blood oozed between Sam's fingers. "You broke my nose."
Jim flexed his right hand, barely aware of his stinging knuckles. "That'll teach
you not to mess with my computer." (Dramatic and full of sensory details.)
If possible, dramatize rather than summarize, and if you need to inform the
reader with description or exposition or narrative, use as many dramatic verbs and
sensory details as possible so as to more fully engage the reader's imagination.
When in doubt, apply the "short test."
The above was taken from an article written by Dave Swinford
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