18 August 2012

Don’t Tell Me I’m Not Showing Again!

One of the big pieces of writing advice every writer is given is the phrase “show – don’t tell.” It gets drummed in from almost every angle. And if you get an especially prickly critique partner, the comments about showing become overbearing.
(An actual comment from one critique I got: “ZOMGWTFBBQ! Too much tell!”)

So what exactly are they harping on here that makes this phrase so much of an importance to writers, yet causes their teeth to grind at the same time?

A lot of the reactions come from how something was written. At times, it may be labeled as a show vs. tell issue, when it is really a point of view issue, but the critique partner can’t articulate it.

Telling is more of a bland writing, with little emotional connection for the reader. Showing gives the reader more connection. Let me show you. One of my big glitches would be what others call laundry list sentences.

The criminals walked the beach. They broke the car window. They stole the stereo.

This series of sentences tell action. The verbs are active. Yet this is a section of telling. Why? Because it comes across bland. It would be great for a police report, very succinct. However, a reader wants more than the police report bullet points. In this section – What was the criminal’s walk like? Did they appear to have nefarious motives? How did they break the window? What about cuts? Glass shards hamper any activities? Did the stereo theft cause any issues? Perhaps the stereo fought back…
Just from three sentences, it could be expanded to offer so many more details, so the reader has a better idea of the image in your head. Engage the senses, as many as possible, for the scene, to really make the reader understand.

Another tell problem is when it comes to exposition of surrounding details, of background history. Instead of saying something like:

He was a religious zealot.

Think about how to give the image of the character as a religious zealot. Maybe something like this:

The man stood with a worn New Testament in his left hand and a rosary in his right. Each person he approached, he’d make a sign of the cross with the rosary, sometimes trying to press it to the forehead of those he found dressed in the Goth style. As he spoke, he’d try to include a passage within the context of his conversation. If someone tried to take him toward the adult entertainment facility on the corner, he’d hiss and swat their arms with his bible while screaming “Heathen!”

(Mind you, that was off the top of my head.)

Yes, it uses more words, but it also gives a better picture of the character. With the single sentence, could you have seen the bible or the rosary? What about the blessing? Perhaps the reader wouldn't see this person as a zealot. But the description gives a much better feel for what you want to portray.

This isn’t to suggest that telling doesn’t have a place in a story, because a writing journey isn’t absolute for any one person. Besides, some things you just can’t show. This, like most writing rules, is to act as a guideline early on. Learn to keep things moving with details, then as you grow as a writer, start finding where a telling space would keep the story moving without killing the action.

Just remember that the rule is about engaging the reader in the story and making it sing for them.

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