First off, I would like you to think about the way you read a book and what is special about books you really liked.
If you are a writer, but not much of a reader…you are doing it all wrong. It’s like trying to be a chef when you are not that much into eating. To be a good writer you have to be an avid reader. Don’t tell me “I don’t have time”. You have to make time. It’s part of the job. I read whenever I’m too tired to write, or when I travel.
So, what makes a book special?
Some books are a collection of words that tell a story, but some books are magical; within a few lines you stop seeing words and you are transported through space a time to live a 3D adventure playing inside your brain.
“Show don’t tell” is the art to pass information to reader without stating it directly. You have the reader infer the information from behaviors, reactions, dialogue, and situations.
The opposite of “show don’t tell” are infodumps: the sworn enemies of writers. They are long, boring paragraphs where the writer summarizes backstory, side plots and the like. As a reader, these are those paragraphs where you find yourself skimming through and skipping lines ;)
This is from “Forget Nico, Falling for the Wrong Italian”
The following morning I sported one of my sister’s old mini skirts made of pink denim, and I let my hair down after having it painfully brushed like Grandma had taught me years before.
I was surprised when the doorbell rang.
Mom, who had been ecstatic at my outfit when we had put it together the night before, now glared at the world from behind her triple-espresso.
I frowned. “Who the heck could it be at this time of the morning?”
Mom mumbled something unintelligible, so I grabbed my backpack and made my way to the door.
Alex flashed a dashing smile from the gate. “Wanna go to school together?”
As I walked out of the house I felt like I was in one of those nightmares where you’re naked in front of everyone. “Alex, we don’t even go to the same school.”
Alex gave me the once over and exclaimed, ogling me from his bike, “Wow, Lee, is this how you go to school? You look…wow, you look like a girl!”
“Gee, Alex, thanks.” I walked toward him and his bike. “My bike has a flat tire, by the way. I can’t go with you, gotta walk.”
Alex smiled faking a big huff. “So much for not being the damsel in distress. Here, hop on, your school’s on the way.”
He gestured to his crossbar, where I sat, hugging my Invicta backpack on the handlebar. When I felt the warmth of his chest brushing my back, I realized just how close the situation was forcing us to be. Awkward.
Alex whispered in my ear, “By the way, I made you a cassette. It’s by Marco Masini.”
Very awkward. I shivered, but it didn’t seem that cold, at all. I tried to lunge forward on the handlebar to increase the distance between us, but I had nowhere to go. Alex handed me the cassette and then took off.
“Ah, thank you. I heard of him.” I clutched the cassette of the Italian songwriter and buried my face into my backpack. Alex pedaled away.
It felt amazing to be forced to sit in his arms without any implications, just being close. I could get used to Alex’s attentions. That jerk Nico had better start to see whatever it was that Alex liked, because I was not going to wait forever.
But think about it; what did you learn?
About Leda: she has a sister, she lives with her mom, she is a tomboy, she is not comfortable wearing a skirt (”I felt like I was in one of those nightmares where…”, she hates pink (pink was italicized), she does not wear skirts normally nor lets her hair down, she likes Nico (who is a jerk), she is not indifferent to Alex, she is lonely (“I could get used to Alex’s attentions”).
About Alex: he likes Leda, he has a dashing smile, he’s thoughtful and kind (he made her a cassette, he came to pick her up, he’s giving her a ride), he’s not a “player” (if he were he would have complimented Leda on her outfit, instead, like the klutz he really is, he says “Wow, you look like…a girl”).
About Mom: she is not a morning person, she would like Leda to be girly (”she had been ecstatic at my outfit…”).
About the place: there are several clues suggesting that we are in Italy, but you would know that already if you had started the book from the beginning. So these are really just “reminders”. Clues: the triple espresso, the Invicta backpack (a typical Italian brand), Marco Masini (an Italian songwriter).
About the time: Alex made Leda a cassette; this is typical of the 90s (or 80s). Again, if you had read the book from the beginning you’d know we are in 1990. This is just a reminder.
About relationship dynamics: I don’t tell you that Leda thinks that Alex is cute: she shivers in his arms, she notices the heat of his chest against her back, she thinks the situation is awkward. I don’t tell you that she likes Nico and he is indifferent you learn that from her thoughts.
The narrator did not tell you any of these things. You learned them from the scene. An example of infodump would have been: “Leda was a tomboy and felt very awkward wearing a skirt. When Alex picked her up she felt selfconscious. Etc…”
The more you write, the better you’ll become at “show don’t tell” to the point that it will permeate every aspect of your writing, even little details. When in the paragraph above the doorbell rings I don’t tell you that Leda is surprised because she is not expecting anyone; she frowns and wonders who it might be.
A cheap trick to find and eliminate infodumps
As a rookie writer it’s hard to find infodumps. Look out for verbs like “look” and “feel”. For example: “Alex looked upset” (You are telling me! Show me instead!) You could replace that with “Alex bit his lip, tormenting the cuticle on his thumb.” Or “Leda felt embarrassed” could be replaced with, “Leda looked at the ground feeling her cheeks burning.”
Who am I to give you advice?
I am the shadow of your soul, the itch on your hand, longing to hold a pen. Part Pokémon and outright strange; I am the author of the Italian Saga (#TIS): an irreverent indie series taking place in Italy and speaking of love, pain, and happiness with a healthy dose of humor <3