One of my favorite musicals is My Fair Lady, the Pygmalion-inspired Victorian tale where a language expert, Professor Higgins, attempts to transform a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a grand lady by teaching her how to speak well. In one of the songs, “Show Me,” Eliza expresses frustration to lovesick Freddy, saying that if he loved her, then he would show her and not tell her because she is “so sick of words.” This flower girl unwittingly stumbled on a technique which all writers struggle with: showing, not telling.
Show, Don’t Tell
“Never do I ever
want to hear another word
There isn’t one
I haven’t heard”
This is one of the many statements Eliza expresses during her song. Editors probably have the same sentiment when they read a story that tells what is happening rather than show it. After all, which is more interesting to read, “His leg hurt,” or “Tom gasped, barely holding back a scream as sharp pain sliced up his calf.”?
The show-don’t-tell concept also goes back to the adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” For example, which has more affect, the words “She is angry,” or the action “She frowned.”? This example also shows an essential aspect of the show-don’t-tell concept with limiting your use of “be” verbs, which include is, am, are, was, and were. These weak verbs are the biggest culprit of telling rather than showing because telling is exactly what they do.
“Haven’t your lips longed for my touch?
Don’t say how much, show me, show me”
As you can see from this part of the song, another aspect of writing Eliza covers is avoiding the use of unnecessary adverbs. You could say “I am very happy,” and that would get your point across to some degree, but this statement looks mediocre compared to more concrete descriptions like “I am ecstatic,” that show exactly how happy I am without cluttering up the sentence with “very.” The same can go with adverbs ending in –ly. “He shut the door angrily” is a weak sentence compared to “He slammed the door,” which has a strong verb that also shows that someone is angry.
Making Good Writing Great
When you show what is happening to your characters rather than tell it, then your writing will become more interesting to read. Go through your story sentence by sentence to see when you can alter your words to show things. Of course, there are many situations where it is better to tell what happens and use “be” verbs and adverbs, but you may find that there are just as many opportunities to improve your writing by showing. Eliza Doolittle would approve.