Show, don’t tell. Most writers have heard this maxim at some point, whether from a teacher, an editor or an agent. But what does this writing advice mean, in practical terms?
While a certain amount of exposition is unavoidable (and even useful) in your writing, it’s easy to “over-share” the minutiae of your story’s background and your characters’ lives. When writing a novel, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve a balance of showing and telling:
- Be brief. Make sure that all of your “telling” details are actually necessary to advance the plot, either by developing backstory, establishing the mood/tone, or describing the setting.
- Avoid the dreaded “info dump.” Don’t overwhelm your reader with information in your story’s first few pages. Focus on capturing her attention with a compelling character and an interesting situation, then fold in the details as the plot develops.
- Steer clear of cliches. Never start a story with a character waking up and starting his day—unless you want to put your reader to sleep.
Author and editor Jeff Gerke offers the following writing advice for balancing showing and telling from his book The First 50 Pages (Writer’s Digest Books):
Showing vs. Telling in Your Writing: The Camera Test
I’ll give you a little tool here that could revolutionize your understanding of showing and telling in fiction. I may not be the first person to talk about it in these terms, but I know I’ve never heard it before I thought it up. So at least I’m its co-inventor.
Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can’t see it—not in other people’s fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can’t even see? There’s a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?
There are exceptions, but Can the camera see it? is a terrific tool for helping you begin to see the telling in a manuscript. Let’s test it:
Urlandia was a peaceful realm. Peasants and nobles alike lived in harmony despite the occasional bout with famine or invaders from the neighboring kingdom of Dum. There were heroes and cads, pirates and tavern wenches, and in all, their lives were good.
Okay, aside from this being deadly dull, is it showing or telling? Let’s load up the testing gun and fire: Can the camera see it?
Your mind might have conjured up an image of a fantasy countryside with green meadows, vast forests, and castles with pennants flapping in the breeze, but how could you have seen “the occasional bouts with famine”? How could you see that their lives were good? You couldn’t. You weren’t shown any of this—you were simply told. And it probably left you feeling a little sleepy.
It would be quite possible to convert this telling to showing by depicting things before the camera’s lens that suggest each of these elements. But right now it’s unconverted telling. I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve seen that start like this. And I’ve rejected every single one of them. You don’t want your book rejected, so don’t put telling anywhere in the first fifty pages.
Veronica shifted into park and got out of her VW bug. She shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun and stared at the house. It was smaller than she remembered. And had it always been this run-down, or had it fallen into disrepair only lately? It had once been white, but the siding slats desperately needed a new paint job.
Two giant antennae poked up from the roof like alien tentacles. They were held in place by cables, but the one on the right nevertheless tilted at a diagonal. Maybe it helped with reception. The porch was covered by an awning of flaking wood. Whether the walls beneath the wood were worse off than the rest or they just looked that way because they were shrouded in shadow, Veronica couldn’t tell.
She sighed. If this is where she came from, no wonder she’d turned out as she had.
Okay, load up the testing gun. Can the camera see this? Actually, yes. Aside from a violation of the rule not to start a novel with someone getting out of a car, it’s not terrible prose. It’s description. Some people would be inclined to cut it because nothing seems to be happening: It’s neither action nor dialogue, so it must be telling. But that would be a mistake, since a lack of description can get your book declined. Description isn’t telling because … the camera can see it. Without description, the reader can’t visualize the story—which means that your story can’t go forward without description. Don’t leave it out.
As I mentioned, there are exceptions. The camera can’t see sounds or smells or temperatures or tastes, though a description of those things would not be telling. Also, interior monologue—the viewpoint character’s thoughts and interpretations—can’t be seen by a camera and is therefore not (usually) telling. But on the whole, Can the camera see it? will help you immediately spot and eliminate telling.
Buy The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke.
For more help with writing a novel, check out these resources from Writer’s Digest:
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Craft & Technique, Excerpts, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, What's New
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How to Write Effective Dialogue
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
-excerpt from George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.
So once upon a time, I wrote a blog comparing the college essay to froyo. Since then, the application has been revised, and although I still believe in the merits of the first blog in regards to a long college admissions essay (500-1000 words), it definitely doesn't apply completely to the new short-answer system that MIT adopted.
A few months ago, I created a bogus account on my.mit.edu so I can actually catch a glimpse at what the new application looks like (it really doesn't look that different, ha) and I've been thinking about how I would approach these essays. Although nothing here is the product of intense cognition, I thought I'd share some of my views on these small essays.
Essentially, you have 5 "mini-essays" - What You Do For Pleasure ("pleasure" - 100 words), Department at MIT ("department" - 100 words), What You Do That's Creative ("creativity" - 250 words), World You Come From ("world" - 250 words), Significant Challenge ("challenge" - 250 words), and that's it! Less than 1000 words total.
The easy things first - the "Pleasure" and the "Department" prompts are not really "essays," but short answers, so they can be easily answered. My advice is just to go ahead and be honest with them (well, you should be honest in your entire application ;P), especially with the "Pleasure" essay. The admission officers ("adcoms") are not looking for "standard" answers, and you won't get brownie points by putting down "programming," "building robots," or other "MIT-y" answers (although they also definitely won't penalize you if they do happen to be things that you do for fun). Just be honest!
Many people stress out about the "Department" essay, but I can tell you that MIT DOES NOT admit on a quota, and you WILL NOT be penalized by which department you put down on that blank (I don't know how many emails I've gotten on this subject already - seriously, the adcoms are not lying at you, and no - there is no conspiracy either). Therefore, you will not seem more impressive if you put down Philosophy, over, say, Mechanical Engineering. When I applied, I put down Chemical Engineering (oh, such were the days of my innocent youth, when I believed that Chemistry was trivial), but now I'm happily a Biology (and pending History) major. Your interests may shift after you enroll at MIT (and realize how brutal some of the courses here can be), and that's perfectly fine! So don't worry too much.
For the "Creativity" essay, I would encourage you to look at the connotation of "creativity" from a new angle (in a sense, be creative about exploring creativity :P). You can go broader than physical things like creative projects or creative inventions. I would investigate writing about creative ideas, creative ways of looking at things, creative ways of solving problems, for example. I wrote about a concrete research project I did when I applied, but I thought that was quite boring in comparison to the other things that could have written about, so I encourage you to explore this topic a bit further. :)
Ah - ok, now we come to the challenging 250-word essays.
So back in the day, we had a choice between these two essays to write a long essay on, but I guess now they're requiring you write on both of them, but as shorter essays.
Actually, I really enjoyed the "world" essay - and I thought it was the one of the best prompts out of the prompts for the 15 colleges that I applied to (number one was still Stanford's "photograph" prompt - I loved it. Sorry MIT :P). The challenge now, however, is how to condense all the things you want to convey into mere 250 words.
In order for me to see what a 250 word word limit is really like, I wrote a 250 word essay. Not on MIT's prompts, though.
He held up the sheet of wrinkled paper, his eyes in silent protest.
The tattered bill requested 13,800 dollars for a three-day hospital stay.
"Why call the ambulance? Just leave me alone!" the frail old man muttered. Just a week ago, Mr. Vu suffered a stroke that required hospitalization. Because he could not understand English, Mr. Vu had not applied for health insurance, resulting in the exorbitant bill.
An internship at an Asian clinic opened my eyes to the untold story of limited-English proficiency patients, who often struggle to obtain health care in a maze of foreign forms and convoluted policies.
Suffering from a worsening stomachache, Mrs. Wong was neglected in the county hospital for over two hours, unable to flag down a passing nurse for assistance because of the language barrier. Clutching a X-Ray order, Mr. Park searched in vain for Radiology in a blinding flurry of English letters.
Over the summer, these stories became too common - accounts of immigrants fighting for their right to care in a shockingly monolingual health system. After the internship, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter in November. I wanted to change the status quo.
My experiences this summer solidified my conviction of entering into public health, especially immigrant health, as my future course of study. America has long prided itself as a "melting pot" of cultures. Isn't it only fitting that there exists equitable access to health care, regardless of the language spoken?
The word limit is kinda short.
Now, a disclaimer: I want to stay that this is not intended to be a "model essay" (I think the ending can use some more work, among other things), but I thought this would be easier in illustrating a point.
If you look at the essay, I like going narrative -> point -> how it connects to me. In fact, this is what I use for most of my essays :3
Here's the same essay, deliberately made worse (but to illustrate a very common problem in college application essays):
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic in Oakland, California. Over the course of the summer, I realized the plight of immigrants when it comes to obtaining equitable health care. In the modern health industry, immigrants and other residents who possess limited English proficiency are often overlooked because of their inability to communicate their symptoms to the doctor and complete paperwork in English. This problem is exacerbated when they cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant health bills. In a country that claims to be the "melting pot" of cultures, this kind of neglect is no longer acceptable.
Many patients suffer extended waits in the hospital, unable to obtain assistance. It is possible that a worsening stomachache is the initial sign for appendicitis, which needs to be treated expeditiously. Often, hospital signs are also not translated into other languages, making navigation difficult for elderly patients. These scenes are played across hospitals in the nation everyday.
After my experiences this summer, I realized that I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system. It is no longer sufficient for us to stand on the sidelines and watch. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed as a Mandarin health interpreter. I hope I will be able to contribute my efforts to the field of public health, especially immigrant health, in the future. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
Also 250 words, but this essay is riddled with problems, many of which Orwell pointed out in the blurb above.
1. The essay is filled with extraneous and needlessly difficult words. ("I wanted to channel my energy into the revitalization of this system")
2. The essay lacks a personal voice - it's very passive ("These scenes are played," "immigrants are often overlooked," "the problem is exacerbated")
3. The essay never "shows" - it only "tells."
Show, don't tell!
I can't emphasize this enough. This essay points out many problems of the health care system, but doesn't offer any examples of the problems. At the end of the day, which essay will readers remember better? An essay that speaks in general terms or Mr. Vu with his bill?
Personally, I think after MIT made the switch from the long essay to short essays, this point is even more pertinent. You just can't afford to waste words speaking in vague terms that doesn't convey much in terms of meaning.
When adcoms read thousands of essays on end, you need to stand out. Ideally, your essay should pack enough punch (that's a cliche :P) so that your readers have a "take-home message" (another cliche :P). Simply put, you need something memorable about your essay. If you feel bored writing your essay, chances are that the person reading your essay will be bored too. Make it vivid - let your story shine.
Finally, the other point I want to convey:
Trim the extra fat!
I narrowed down the first essay from over 400 words to just 250. Chances are, you can do the same too. The second essay is plagued with extraneous words, and actually it can be narrowed down to just this without loss of meaning:
Last summer, I worked in an Asian clinic, where I realized the struggle of immigrants in obtaining equitable health care because of the language barrier. They often cannot apply for health insurance, resulting in exorbitant bills. This is not acceptable in America, which claims to be a "melting pot" of cultures.
Many patients suffer long waits in the hospital, unable to get help. A worsening stomachache can lead to appendicitis that requires rapid treatment. Often, signs are only written in English, making navigation difficult for elderly patients.
It is no longer sufficient for me stand on the sidelines - I want to make a difference. To this end, I participated in a medical interpretation training program and was licensed in Mandarin. Eventually, I hope I can work in the field of public health, especially immigrant health. These patients cannot afford to passively wait for language-accessible care and continue to sacrifice their right to treatment.
This new essay is only 154 words. Although it definitely sounds stilted and shouldn't be submitted as a complete essay, it still goes to show how much excess fat one can usually trim from a typical essay.
Not to reiterate myself too much from the previous blog that I wrote, but the effective essay, IMO, is the essay that really shows who you are, where you're coming from, and what your loves are - in your own voice. Both the "world" and the "challenges" essay are structured so that it's focused on you and your stories. Use these opportunities to tell a story - to convey who you are. There's no need to repackage your tale in fancy rhetoric or educated vocabulary.
Just as we see in world literature: often the best stories are, really, the simplest stories.