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Editor's Perspective: Show, Don't Tell Principle

Writing is a deeply personal process and, for many, an art form. Consequently, it may surprise people that there are principles, rules, and specific structures to follow in such a creative field. One of the fundamental rules of writing, which I often explain to my clients and those seeking my advice, is the "show, don't tell" principle, and it's probably one of the most challenging concepts to convey.

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." — Anton Chekhov

What is the "Show, Don't Tell" Principle?

The "show, don't tell" principle can be quite confusing for new writers. However, it is undeniably essential for writing a proper book. Of course, every book has sections where telling instead of showing is inevitable. Nevertheless, there is a crucial reason why this principle is taught to every beginner writer.

The "show, don't tell" principle is a technique you can use to add drama to your work. Instead of telling readers what is happening in the plot, it involves presenting the event dramatically on your pages. If you are writing an academic book, you narrate the information to the reader because that is what is expected of you. However, in a fictional work, you need to show rather than tell to engage the reader in the story.

Let's examine this with an example.

Telling: The weather was cold and it was a dark night. The car Elif was driving moved slowly through the city streets.

Showing: Elif could see her breath. She wrapped the scarf around her thin neck one more time, covering her mouth. She leaned forward on the steering wheel as if it could help her see better in the darkness. Having grown up in a warm holiday town, she would never get used to this cold. The chill burned her lungs and numbed her fingers; she could hardly feel her feet pressing the pedals. Moreover, the car felt even colder than the night air outside. The heater had been broken for months, and since she couldn't afford to fix it, she had learned to accept the cold. Acceptance, yes. Love, no.

What did you notice in this example? Telling is factual. Its purpose is to inform and it is concise. It conveys the desired information to the reader in the most effective and efficient way. It is usually devoid of emotion and avoids details, which is why it is preferred for writing educational books.

Showing, on the other hand, is an artistic approach. It centers on humans and emotions. It is slower in tempo and takes the reader on a longer journey to reach the desired point (e.g., the weather being cold). It is a richer method of communication and loves detail so much that it is certainly not an efficient and effective form of communication. If you are writing a novel, you need to fill the pages to ignite the reader's imagination. Thus, the narrative method you seek should be artistic, emotional, and allow the reader to empathize with the character rather than being effective and concise.

Let's look at a longer example. Let's take a classic romantic scenario that most readers are familiar with.

Telling: Burak met Aslı on Friday, very late, after work, as he was about to board the metro. They collided.

Showing: Burak had finally managed to leave work, and he had to hurry to catch the last metro leaving at midnight. His mind was filled with weekend dreams. All he wanted was to sleep in and then stretch out lazily. Maybe he would play some computer games or stand as the goalie if the kids decided to play a match. Perhaps... if he had the energy. At that moment, all he wanted was to go home and shut the door, leaving the world outside.

Perhaps due to his fatigue or his rush, he threw himself forward as soon as the metro doors opened. He was used to the metro being empty at this hour of the night. Therefore, he didn't see the young woman who was hastily getting off the metro. She collided with him, causing him to stumble back. As his foot caught in the gap between the metro and the platform, he began to fall backward. In his panic, he reached out for something to hold onto, and his hands wrapped around the young woman's arms, pulling her down with him. With a loud thud, they fell to the ground, resembling a tangle of limbs.

Burak found himself lying on the cold, dirty station floor with an unknown young woman lying on top of him. He looked at the young woman he had tightly grasped by the arms. She was looking at him with wide eyes, as if deciding whether or not to scream. As Burak pondered how to extricate himself from this strange situation, he smiled awkwardly...

Can you see the differences? As a reader, which would you prefer? In which method did you feel more immersed in the story? Which one would you continue reading?

I'm sure many of us will have the same answer to these questions. The second method offers us a much richer, more emotional narrative space. We wonder why Burak left work so late and why the woman was trying to get off the metro in such a hurry. Is she in trouble? How will Burak handle this situation? Will he help her? This is precisely the reaction we want from the reader; curiosity, questioning, empathizing with the characters, and caring about them. The telling method provides none of this, whereas the richness and freedom in the showing method allow you as a writer to craft your language, draw in your reader, depict your scene, and reflect your text emotionally.

Although, in the end, your reader will use the telling method when describing the book to a friend (hence the name "telling"), you need to show them rather than tell them. Therefore, it is crucial to research and practice this technique, especially if you are a new writer. You can practice your showing technique by using the sections provided below, written in the telling method.

Telling: Serpil wiped the sweat from her forehead. She entered the house. She placed the basket full of vegetables on the table. She sat down. She was tired.

To use the showing technique, try answering these questions: Is Serpil the lady of the house or a worker? How is the weather? What was her garden like? Are the vegetables healthy or rotten? Does Serpil enjoy what she does, or is she doing it out of necessity?

Telling: The cat was small and white. It ran across the street. It disappeared into an alley.

To make the most of the showing technique, think about these: Is the cat scared? Is it running away from something? Maybe it's being chased by a dog, other cats, or people. Were there cars on the street when it crossed? Perhaps it narrowly escaped being hit. Is the alley it entered a dead-end or a familiar place? Maybe its home is there, and it will reach safety through a cat door. Or maybe its owner was calling it, and it was running excitedly because it was mealtime.

Telling: The child was running, stumbled, and dropped the ice cream he was holding. He started to cry.

Use these ideas to practice the showing technique: How old is the child? What is he wearing? Is he happy or unhappy? Is he running ahead of his family? Why did he stumble? Were there paving stones on the road? Perhaps he stumbled in the middle of a busy road and is now in danger. Can you describe the drama of the ice cream falling and getting smeared with mud? Or his tears? Maybe the child is very poor, and the ice cream is very precious to him.

By using examples like these and practicing, you can better understand the difference between telling and showing. Once you master this technique, you will approach your writing differently, creating much more dramatic and emotional content that engages, intrigues, and artistically nourishes the reader.


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