I guess I should add some sort of disclaimer or warning–I’m gonna get a little raunchy here just to make a point. Now you know…and knowing’s half the battle!
Show, Don’t Tell is one of those cardinal rules of fiction writing. Let your characters’ actions define their personalities; let their words illustrate who they are. Don’t tell me your protagonist is strong; that does nothing. Show me: describe them staring down an onslaught of German bullets on the beach of Normandy with little more than a .45 and an iron jaw. Let me see them lead a ragtag bunch of rebels against impossible odds. Have them cry one lonely tear as they bury a spouse and hug parentless children close.
I’ve gotten pretty good at this over time. One reason is that I write everything as a screenplay first. Screenplays, by their nature, have built in pacing and rely on dialogue to move the story forward. Can’t get comfy with that narrative voice in a screenplay; you have to make your characters real. The second reason is from a conversation my mother and sister had a long time ago.
When I was in high school, my brother had come home from college and made it his mission to get our 13-year-old sister in trouble for the summer. He antagonized her as much as he could, trying to make the case that she was getting it easier than we did. I stayed out of it: I was just trying to finish Super Mario Bros. on SuperNES. One day thought, he got her so angry she’d had it. She told him, “Suck my dick!”
You read it right. That’s what she said.
Now my brother says, in an 8-year-old’s voice, “Ooooohhhh, I’m telliiiinnnn. I’m telling mama!” You know how this sounds, that singsong that shifts gears in the middle: “Oooooo—ooo—oooooh!” He was 19 sounding like a kid. I didn’t believe him. Neither did my sister. Big mistake.
When my mom came home, my brother tells IMMEDIATELY. “Guess what your daughter said!” He tells her the whole deal, leaves out the parts where he pissed her off entirely, and I pause my game (again) to corroborate his story.
MY MOM: What did she say?
MY BROTHER: She told me to SUCK HER DICK.
MY MOM: No, she didn’t. In my house? Chris, did—
ME: Yeah, yeah she did.
My mom is hot! She takes my sister in the back and, in the course of discipline, asks the best question I have ever heard: “Where is your dick! Show me your dick!”
Don’t tell me. Show me.
That’s what it comes down to, folks. I’m not even going to close it out any better than that. There are thousands of resources and reference materials to talk you through this idea but I think you get it. For me, any passage I write, any scene or interaction has to speak to my mother’s question and anything I read better answer it too.
I’m out: we caught Peter Pan at the top of Cinderella’s castle—we’re gonna see if he REALLY can fly…