Creative Writing Tips: Show Don’t Tell
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Creative Writing Tips: Show Don’t Tell

One norm of writing, especially for creative writers, is: Show, don’t tell.

However, show don’t tell is one writing rule that many emerging writers struggle with. To succeed as a writer, you must understand how to balance showing vs telling.

There are scenes which stick with you, even long after the book has been put back on the shelf. The pictures from the book are so clear and the emotions are sharp, such that you are teleported to the scenario and you feel what the character feels. We’ve all had those special moments.

Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come

One of the most vivid scenes I’ve read might be Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come. When the heroine, Enitan Taiwo, falls out with her father, Bandele Taiwo: we do not only hear them exchanging words: we see an agitated Enitan packing her bags and storming out of her father’s house in the dead of the night.

We know where she is going; to Mike, her boyfriend’s house. When she gets there, Mike takes too long to open his gate. After a while he shows up looking wary, dressed in boxer shorts, and he contorted his face into a frown.

He tries to dissuade her from going into the house. But Enitan is naturally feisty, so she insists and forces her way in, then she sees his reason, a beautiful rival with low cut hair and haughty eyes, sprawled out on his couch, dressed in one of his shirts.

Enitan takes in the outstanding features of her rival and flares up: she storms to a corner of the house, picks up his most graceful (and probably his best artwork), Obatala, and smashes it on the floor. We hear a devastated Mike yelp, we see him clasp his hand behind his head in a way that says ‘I’m finished.’ 

Sefi Atta could have simply said, “Enitan left her father’s house angry and went to Mike’s house. Mike was acting strange. There was another woman in his house. Enitan was so livid; she stormed out of the house.”

But Sefi paints thought-evoking pictures of the eclectic experiences which contribute to the opinions she forms and holds about men.

The writer scores a high point when he uses his words to paint pictures that haunt the writer and last long after the book has returned to the shelf.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun 

Another example of such a book is, the orange prize winning Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

There were many striking scenes, but the one I’ll mention here is the party scene in a hall crowded with dignitaries. Richard, the British writer, spots Kainene across the room and doesn’t take his eye off her. Kainene notices his stare and arches her eyes brows. Richard looks away, feeling shy and trying to gather courage to will her over with his eyes.  But Kainene doesn’t look back at him.

The eye contacts and gestures tell all the stories. The writer shows how Richard admires Kainene and is confused about how to approach her. He’s shy. Kainene arches her eyebrow in a way that questions his staring. The exchange of glances show, some sort of attraction between them.   

Beyond the Margins

Recently, I was reading a writer’s blog, Beyond the Margins. He too had discussed the magic which ‘show and tell’ works. Here is how he describes a vivid scene:

“The brilliant opening of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is brutal in its candor and claustrophobic tedium, which is true of so much of the book.

April and Frank Wheeler are driving home in disappointed silence after she has starred in a bit of community theater. He knows she bombed; she knows he knows. In the fight that follows, each one says precisely the wrong thing, every gesture falls short. He goes to pat her thigh, but she is curled against the passenger door just beyond his reach, and his attempt to console flops as much as her performance….

Of course, what we’re always told about showing versus telling is so true of memorable scenes. It is so much more visceral to be shown, the hand reaching to pat the thigh and the wife curling against the car door, than any amount of telling: ‘He felt rejected’ or, ‘She felt alone in her failure.’”

Final thoughts on Show Don’t Tell.

When writing a scene, the writer should seek to give a sense of place, time and event with vivid pictures. In fact, avoid the use of adverbs and weak adjectives.

Use more of verbs and nouns. No matter how subtle the scene is, vivid emotions and clear pictures can be used to evoke memorable scenes in the reader’s mind.

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