Cinematography of the mind

Why do writing experts always advise us to use the writing principle of show don’t tell?

I find that when I am reading a writer who uses show don’t tell I am absorbed and fully engaged with the story. Those stories are the ones I cannot put down.

The reason for this is the language is cinematic and active sentences prevail. There is more detail and description. I am not simply told something happened I am shown what happened and I am part of the action as a reader. Love that feeling.

I am getting better at writing in the show don’t tell mode but I have a long way to go because I think I have written show don’t tell but then discover, using the stylecheck that I have not. It is incredibly frustrating. So let’s see what kind of sentences would have me fooled?

The full moon sat on a bed of twinkling stars. A falling star captured what was going on in Tara's heart.

The full moon sat in a bed of twinkling stars seems to include the kind of detail we are looking for.

We can visualise the moon. The writer tells us it is full and we know what that looks like. We can also see that it is surrounded by twinkling stars and that also helps create a visual description. Then the writer added a falling star so that surely is now a show don’t tell piece.

The answer is ‘no, it is not’. Why?

Because it is describing the scene as if we are observers and not emotionally involved as readers.

The writer has assumed that we all have exactly the same idea of what a full moon looks like. Yes, we do. We know when a moon is full but what colour is the full moon, where is it in the sky and is the sky dark, early morning or late evening? These are just some of the descriptions that would take the sentence from being just a piece of information to a piece that shows us what the full moon is like.

Often a piece that is not show don’t tell  glosses over detail. It is written in haste and the writer appears to assume we know what he or she is trying to say.

What would happen if we added that The moon was thrown into darkness by a stormy cloud? Even though there is more detail, it is vague and sweeping. It also continues to be a passive sentence. Passiveness in this example is indicated by the first three words, The moon was…

The first thing a writer can do when faced with this problem is to pause and ask him or herself what the relevance of the information is. This makes the writer pause and decide whether or not she or she wants to keep the sentence and what information it adds for the reader.

So let’s try a show don’t tell sentence: A stormy cloud floated over the moon, dipping the night into a terrifying noise-filled darkness.

Yes, it adds word count but we also can imagine someone experiencing that particular kind of night.

If we want to bring the reader into the scene, it helps to show how that description actually affects the story. So if we give the reader the scene from the point of view of the protagonist, we aid that process. We know the moon was lighting the way but then a stormy cloud floats over it creating a change in the darkness. This could be a metaphor for any state of being and the darkness does not need to be terrifying and noise-filled. It could be something else. But this example elaborates on the situation and gives the reader something to hold on to.

We could also describe it in the following way:

Tara's shadow, lit up by a full moon, went before her.

We see her shadow so we know the moon is bright. We also know there is a shadow. This could be simply a shadow or a metaphorical one. The reader will find out by reading on.

Show don’t tell is about painting pictures with words and it is sparking the reader’s imagination so that they do the cinematography in their minds. We give the clues and their imaginations takes the next steps.

show don't tell