Please Show, Don’t Tell

There is something elusive about writing, and I’ve formed the opinion that this is what makes writing art. Or not art. I don’t mean that in a snooty way, rather as a form of humble appreciation. It’s the difference between riveting writing and writing that is a bit naff, a bit off. The type of book you read until 3 a.m. and the book you get two pages into and then decide to never pick up again.

My mentor Simon describes it as ‘making the reader ping’. A very scientific explanation.

What is ‘ping’? At the third Te Papa Tupu writers’ workshop, we had some time to talk about the manuscript. Simon – who presented an awesome workshop on story arc – shared his general contentment with the arc and character development. But there was a hiccup. There were issues at a sentence level. With my writing.

There was no ‘ping’. Parts of it were not quite right. In others, something was missing. Although there are huge battles, blood spattering and the heads of bit-part characters rolling … it still wasn’t engaging as heads rolling really should be.

This was a bit daunting. Everything else was great – except for the writing itself. This is something to grapple with, a challenge right up there with defeating an evil sorcerer. So, Gandalf the Wizard/Simon the Mentor gave me advice that was something like, become the character before writing. Visualise yourself in the character’s body and engage with the five senses. What can Hine or Pakū touch? What can they taste, smell and hear?

‘Visualise yourself in the character’s body and engage with the five senses.’ 

I gave this a go. I tried – I really did. I visually imagined myself as the characters in my head. I rode that giant moa, I fought the evil sorcerer, I imagined being kidnapped by an unknown blue-hooded stranger. I made myself vomit with fear. It was better, Simon assured me. But still … not there yet. There was something else. I was telling too much and needed to Show, Don’t Tell. This was the first time I had ever heard of this.

What is Show, Don’t Tell? Well, as far as I know, it’s allowing the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts and senses rather than through description. In her workshop, Paula Morris alluded to Show, Don’t Tell through Point Of View – writing from the POV of the character.

Hine and Pakū face insurmountable evil, cursed and grotesque animals, skeleton people, a scar-faced sorcerer and taiaha-wielding men who have ‘no-eyes’. Because of this, fear is a pretty common emotion in my manuscript. So, instead of saying ‘Hine was afraid’, if you Show, Don’t Tell, it’s ‘Hine’s chest tightened’, ‘Hine froze’, ‘her mouth was dry’, ‘her brow was covered in sweat’, ‘she rubbed her sweaty hands on her skirt’. From this, the reader assumes (if it works) that Hine is under some kind of stress and from the context that it would be fear.

‘Show, Don’t Tell through Point Of View – writing from the POV of the character.’

Now, I’m sure there have to be better examples than that (if you do know of any, please share in the comments below so I can steal them haha), but the point is that these are the kinds of things I’ve had to think about.

Confusingly, all writers actually DO tell. I know … right? Confusing. If you look at it this way, it would be pretty hard to write a novel that didn’t tell at all – not once. Especially in the young adult genre and with an action-packed storyline.

This is what is so confusing about this concept. You have to Show, Don’t Tell, but actually, do tell, but not too much. Give enough information for the reader to understand what is going on, but don’t over prescribe. Otherwise, you are robbing them of the chance to fill in the blanks – to recreate the novel as they see it in their own minds.

‘Give enough information for the reader to understand what is going on, but don’t over prescribe.’

So, I turned to the help that was suggested at the workshop, and on a surprisingly windy day, I wandered into Wellington City Library and picked up Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction by John Casey. Now, this book is not a page-turner by any means. The best way to describe it would be that it hurt my brain. I felt like I was reading the ancient texts of some religion or perhaps the oral teachings of Te Papa Tupu mentor ‘Yoda’ (aka author James George).

An excerpt:

‘A common fault among younger writers, especially good ones, is to become enchanted with complex ornamentation…[…]. I once took a writer to the Washington National Cathedral (a good duplication of English gothic). We looked at the vaulting – finer and finer tendrils sprouted. But the bases were as big as a house. You can’t almost see the way around. You can feel, you can almost hear them as if you were in the engine room of a ship larger than any ever built. You don’t need to explain that you couldn’t get the tendrils way up there without these roots. Or that the delicate tendrils wouldn’t be as beautiful if they weren’t a culmination of force …’

It’s heavy. It’s wordy. I skim most of the words. My brows furrow. I feel the faintest twinge of a migraine, my brain whirring and I sigh, loudly.

In saying all that, I would still recommend reading it. I don’t know if I understood, but I am always hopeful that subconsciously I absorbed its teachings – through osmosis. Will it help? Will the newly edited manuscript dazzle with ping?

One can only hope.


Ataria Rangipikitia Sharman (Tapuika, Ngāpuhi) loves writing. Sometimes what she writes is good and sometimes it isn’t. But she persists nevertheless, in the form of essays, poetry and articles. Ataria’s writing has been published on E-Tangata and you can follow her poetry on Instagram @atariarangipikitia.