Monday, November 29, 2010

Show vs Tell: What does it mean, and how do you do it?

"Show, don't tell" is a common mantra among editors, would-be editors, writing experts of both the genuine and self-proclaimed type (I don't claim to be either, by the way. I just like to share what I've learned and what works for me!). However, I think sometimes these people don't quite know what it really means...and I think a lot of beginning writers struggle with it. So, let's talk about it a little.

When you think of showing vs telling, think about the reader experience. Do you want them to know something because you told them straight out, or because they envisioned it through your imagery? Readers aren't stupid. If you describe Harold as weighing 10,000 pounds and having big, floppy ears and a trunk, they'll probably guess that Harold is an elephant. That's a pretty silly example, but you get the idea.

Some people mistakenly think that showing is the same thing as describing. That is not so. Nothing turns me off faster than pages (or even paragraphs) of description with no action or dialogue or anything else to keep my interest. I usually skip past it, and I know other readers who have the same view. Oh, sure, there are some master writers who can spend an entire chapter describing a tree, and you just sit there in awe of how amazing this tree is. However, most of us are not able to do that. I think I'll talk more about description in a different post, because that's a whole 'nother discussion...for now, I want to concentrate on what is showing vs. telling.

Here is telling:

Randall drove a compact car. It was too small for him. (snore)

Here is showing:

Randall shoe-horned himself behind the wheel of his car and felt the shocks sink a little. He often wondered if he looked like one of those clowns at the circus or in cartoons--the ones where they drive into the ring in a tiny car, and they get out and they're a huge clown. He reached back and pulled up the lock on the rear passenger door so Kelly could get in. He smiled as he watched her open the door and climb into her car seat. She had inherited her pride from him, and the minute she was able to fasten her own safety harness and close the door by herself, she insisted that no one help her. He feared the day her independence would get her into trouble.

Did you get that the car was small? I also got inspired and kept going (fun how writing prompts can do that for you, eh?), and how much more did you learn about Randall and Kelly? I coudl have told you the same facts in 2-3 sentences, but this way you can really see the scene and it's much more interesting. Plus, it helps pad out your word count, if you're worried about that sort of thing. :)

When you write, think about how you're telling your readers about a scene or person. Are you looking through their eyes and showing them the scene as though they were watching a movie? Or are you listing facts, like they would get in a business report?

I've put a little exercise to help you practice this concept on the Accentuate Writers Forum here: Come on over and try your hand!

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