Show Don’t Tell, one of the oldest adages about writing, means that fiction writers should communicate through description more than direct language. Journalists can use direct, objective language–in fact, they must–but novelists and short story writers need to describe action/emotions to make them real.
Think of this way: nearly every book you read, every movie you watch, and every video game you play is really retelling one of a handful of stories:
- the journey: the main character starts off small and insignificant, sets out on an adventure, defeats a great evil, and returns home a hero (Legend of Zelda, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Hunger Games)
- the comedy: a well meaning but slightly bumbling character and his/her friend face a series of small mishaps. About half-way through the story, everything seems to fall apart but, by the end, everything is good. Oh, and the ending doesn’t have to make sense (Blades of Glory, Ghostbusters, Borat)
- the tragedy: a good yet deeply flawed character desires too much. She seems to obtain the thing she desires halfway through the story, but her pride causes her downfall. (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Breaking Bad)
The description or the portrayal of character and setting are often what set these stories apart. The creator’s ability to imbue characters with real emotion allows us to feel their experiences. This applies to other areas of life, too. Think of it this way: what’s different about how you respond to a Canadian athlete’s jubiliation after she wins a gold medal, and the way you respond to someone telling you “we won another gold today?” This is just another variation of show, don’t tell.
Before we return to your short stories, I have a small task for you. Watch this video clip, and help me generate some ideas that show one character’s emotions.