One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is to ‘show, not tell’. But what exactly does this mean? The phrase is repeated throughout countless blogs, articles and writing handbooks, yet it is seldom explained in enough detail to be beneficial. For a long time, I had the vague notion that it encouraged writers to explain a character’s actions rather than to describe their thoughts and feelings, but I never fully understood how I could implement this as a technique in my writing. So when I heard about Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing, I eagerly downloaded the eBook, hoping that it would help me to understand the concept once and for all.
Author Jessica Bell introduces the book by sharing her own story about her understanding of the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ and explaining her motivation for writing the book-to provide writers with ‘real examples that demonstrate the transition from telling to showing’. What follows is exactly that-a concise handbook that not only tells the writer what they are doing wrong but shows them exactly how to put it right (how very meta!).
Bell presents sixteen scenes as examples, each with a list of attributes (feelings, emotions, situations etc.) that she aims to show. She suggests each scene should be read four times-first to grasp the feel of it, second to identify the words and phrases that have been reworked, third to recognise how they have been changed, and fourth to brainstorm your own ways of depicting the same attributes. This simple methodology is very easy to follow, and the scenes cover a range of different tenses and points of view.
For each scene, she provides an example that is purely descriptive and all ‘telling’, then she rewrites the same scene in a much more effective and engaging style, focusing on ‘showing’. This structure allows you to analyse the two different styles side-by-side, comparing and contrasting the techniques used and their effectiveness. You can clearly see the difference between the two examples. I was blown away by Bell’s talent for bringing scenes and characters to life. She uses realistic dialogue and concise descriptions of all five senses to create movement and evoke emotion. Dull, lack-lustre lists of thoughts and actions are transformed into inspiring, cinematic scenes that seem to play out in your mind’s eye.
But how does this help writers to improve their own craft? After reading the examples, Bell encourages her readers to put what they have learned into practice by rewriting some scenes for themselves, in their own style. The print edition contains blank space for writing notes and ideas, and she encourages those with an eBook version to use highlighting tools to fully engage with the guide. She also provides an email address for readers to ask for more advice, writing prompts or for clarification of anything in the book.
Overall, this handbook couldn’t be more helpful. It’s both easy to understand and to implement in your own work. My only disappointment was that the book wasn’t longer, but it does provide sufficient examples to learn from. I would recommend it to beginner writers, or anyone going through the process of editing drafts, and I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series: Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Subversions of Adverbs & Clichés into Gourmet Imagery.
Disclosure-I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.