Author: Sandy Vaile
Previously published on the Romance Writers of Australia blog 23/08/22
‘Show don’t tell’ is one of the most worrisome writing guidelines ever created, but it’s also essential to modern authors. Finding the right balance of showing and telling in your story is like patting your head and rubbing your belly while balancing on one leg at the top of a pole in a river full of crocodiles. (And I never exaggerate.)
Authors get themselves tied up in knots over how much to show and where to tell. It's painful to watch. But there is good news. Take a deep breath, let go of the minutiae that is bogging you down and remember one simple and liberating concept, and you’ll be on your way to mastering this tricky business.
The One Showing Concept You Need to Know
This concept is so simple you’ll wonder why the ultimatum of ‘show don’t tell’ was ever given.
It’s usually telling that worries authors the most, but in reality, unfettered showing has drawbacks too like:
Showing demonstrates what’s going on through the perspective of the Point of View character, while telling states what the author can see happening and provides readers with preconceived conclusions. Both of these techniques are valuable and should exist harmoniously.
That’s where active storytelling comes into it.
What is Active Storytelling?
There are so many techniques writers need to master in order to write high-quality books that engage readers, it can be as panic-inducing. But Sandy Vaile's Active Storytelling Method is a revolutionary way of learning story craft without the overwhelm.
It focuses on making all aspects of storytelling as active as possible, which means:
Now, I’m not saying it’s a magic pill — you still have to practise the skills — but I truly believe this simple, commonsense approach will cut through the overwhelm and bring the joy of creativity back to your process.
How to Apply Active Storytelling
To practise active storytelling, you only need to embrace two beliefs:
What does this mean for you?
Put telling out of your mind once and for all, because you are continually storytelling. Then, you only have to focus on finding the most active and engaging way to get your point across. Once you get used to this mindset, it will relieve the stress of ‘show don’t tell’ forever.
Each time I look at a chapter I consider if characters are in motion:
Each time I look at a paragraph I consider if I am:
Each time I look at a sentence I consider if I have:
Examples of Active Storytelling
Now, let's take a look at what each of these things looks like in a manuscript, so you can see how simple active storytelling is to apply to your own book.
At the chapter level
When planning or editing a chapter in your novel, look for opportunities to put characters together. Instead of having Jane sitting in a room alone, thinking about a problem, get her talking about it with another character.
At the paragraph level
Authors often use pre-emptive phrases to explain what's going on, like started to or became aware of. In most cases you can remove them and the only effect on the paragraph will be that readers get to feel like they're a part of the story, rather than it being told to them by a third party.
While there's nothing wrong with some eloquent description, instead of having a character enter a room and describe what they see, show them moving through the room and interacting with their environment.
At the sentence level
Scour your manuscript for distancing words (you will find a list of them in the free guide above) and, where practicable, rewrite the sentence to remove them.
When our prose is succinct it's easier for readers to focus on the important parts.
Here's another example.
No More Showing Confusion
As you can see, there is no need to worry about ‘show don’t tell’ anymore. Each time you write, all you have to do is remember the simple concept of making your words and characters active whenever possible, and you’ll forge ahead as an active storyteller. Your eloquent prose will be succinct and engaging, drawing readers through the story because they feel a part of it.
If you are tired of feeling overwhelmed by showing and telling and want to put it to bed once and for all, become an active storyteller by grabbing a a copy of the free Distancing Words to Avoid guide.
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication