Making Sense of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. Transform Your Fiction: 3

Louise Harnby (2021), 92pp, £8.99 (paperback/PDF)
ISBN 979 8715 255 13 6

Reviewed by Jenny Warren

Buy the paperback Buy the PDF

This neat little guide is part of a series that Louise Harnby has created for authors and fiction editors. Its purpose is to help us recognise shown and told prose and to avoid unnecessary exposition. Given that ‘show, don’t tell’ is often trotted out as the golden rule of fiction writing, it certainly deserves a closer look.

It starts off with a simple explanation of what shown and told prose looks like on the page and explains how point of view and narrative distance will affect decisions around showing and telling. There’s a reminder, too, that there’s no place for ‘don’t’ in this type of editing and that so-called ‘rules’ should sometimes take a back seat. As Louise has said elsewhere, fiction editing requires a mindful approach; it is as emotional as it is technical.

Each chapter considers a different aspect of prose, suggests clues to potential problems, demonstrates effective told prose, and offers solutions where there are issues.

As an illustration, Chapter 15 looks at dialogue and considers the use of ‘maid-and-butler’ conversations. This is a device used to reveal backstory to the reader by getting one character to tell another what they already know, often in excruciating and unnecessary detail. (‘Do you remember when we …?’ ‘Oh, yes, that was back in 1976 when we were stranded on a desert island and …’) Louise provides a smart solution by consolidating some of the backstory outside of the dialogue, so the reader has the information without unrealistic exposition from a character. The chapter then explores the effective and non-effective use of told prose through dialogue tags and filter words in thoughts.

The book explores several facets of told prose such as flat character descriptions, body parts doing what’s expected, and instantaneity without loss of immediacy. Each sample of problematic told prose is followed by a fix together with examples of effective writing from published works, demonstrating with great clarity how an editor or author can tackle the issues presented and weave showing and telling together to best effect.

The final chapter is a box of showing tools: a selection of literary devices that can draw readers deeper into the character’s interior space. It identifies how even small changes can add depth and texture to dull or flat prose, focus the reader’s gaze where the author wants it to be, and bring the writing alive.

I learnt a lot from this book, written in Louise’s typically engaging and straightforward style. I heartily recommend this guide for its clarity and accessibility, its nuanced take and, most of all, its solid, practical approach to identifying and fixing issues.

Reviews of other editorial guides All book reviews