Monday, August 16, 2010
11:35 AM | Posted by Lola Sharp | | Edit Post
We've all heard it before (and I've discussed this before):
Show, don't tell.
But what does that really mean? Why is it so important? And is it ever okay to 'tell'?
A lot of writers believe they are showing, when they're really just doing what I call 'fancy telling'. (Lots of details doesn't equate showing. It equates boring.)
Telling states facts.
Showing engages the reader by allowing the reader to use all their senses and make their own judgement.
Don't tell me your main character is angry (because I won't care), show me what he DOES and says, SHOW me he's angry, let me (the reader) decide if I relate, and feel his anger. Readers want to feel engaged, to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what the characters are experiencing.
Okay, I've done enough telling, now let me show you.
Telling: When Gary broke up with me I was devastated. I'll never forget that pain.
Fancy Telling: I could live to be 100, and I'll never feel the agony and rejection I felt after Gary broke up with me in a letter. I was so devastated that I thought I would cry myself to death. I don't think I'll ever get over him.
Showing: Even after Gary stopped doing the little things like calling me from work during the day "just to say hi", and letting me have the last slice of pizza, I still convinced myself it was the natural progression of a relationship settling into its second year.
That soupy Monday morning, the air conditioner chugging away, I reached down to pick up the white envelope sticking out under my front door. I could smell him on the paper as I unfolded his letter. The words blurred as I read the first sentence, my heart thumped in my throat, gagging me. I barely made it to the bathroom, where I curled my body around the cold porcelain for the better part of a week.
It's been 6 months since he dumped me in that damn letter and I still get sick at the smell of pizza or men's cologne.
(Obviously I just wrote these samples quick for this post. Please feel free to write better examples in my comments :)
Often writers think that adding more adjectives to the details is showing, but they're merely doing some fancy telling. Telling on steroids, if you will. The reader still can't SEE and FEEL the actions/behavior, they still can't judge and feel it for themselves.
Instead of just saying that a thing is "awful" or "funny" or "the most beautiful thing you can possibly imagine" and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should show actions, behaviors, senses with words (not lots of adjectives) that lead the reader to conclude for themselves that this thing is indeed scary or hilarious, etc.
Dialogue is a a tricky area. A lot of great showing can be done in dialogue, as can a lot of sloppy telling. My biggest telling pet peeve is: adverbs in dialogue tags.
Don't: "You think you're so smart," she retorted dryly (or wryly...), "then you do it."
Ack. This kind of telling/writing makes me want to pull my hair out.
Do: "You think you're so smart," she cocked a brow and tossed the directions at me, "then you do it."
TIP: During revisions, do a search for the word "was" in your document (for directions how, go here). You'll often find "was" used in telling.
When to tell, NOT show:
All showing and no telling makes a wordy, high-word-count, dull story.
Readers don't want to see/smell/hear every single detail of the 2-block taxi ride, or the sidewalk the MC walked upon, if it is of no real importance to the story.
For pacing purposes, telling can sometimes be a good thing.
What an author must strive for is balance between showing and telling.
But how do you know when to tell and when to show?
-If you want to convey emotion and/or allow you reader to feel, you must show them.
-Go ahead and tell the things that are of minor importance, but needed to move the story forward:
Jane climbed out of bed, used the bathroom and headed to the kitchen to start the coffee.
We don't need to know anything more about this part of the story, so for pacing purposes, this bit of telling is fine, and quickly moves the story forward.
I hope this helps clarify the difference between showing and telling and when to do either.
By the way, I commit plenty of telling sins during my rough drafts, and that's okay. I'm just trying to get the bones of my story on the screen during that first pass. I spend a lot of time in revision turning the telling into showing (and sometimes the other way around.)
- Lola Sharp
- My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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