Success only flourishes in perseverance -- ceaseless, restless perseverance.
--Baron Manfred Von Richtofen

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is That Show, Don't Tell or Tell, Don't Show?

"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." W. Somerset Maugham.

At my writing club meeting yesterday, we discussed the oft heard rule, Show, Don't Tell. I really believe that the first rule of writing is There Are No Rules. Really. There are however, some really good suggestions that maybe you ought to pay attention to. When I became a submissions editor for Mindflights, I realized why writers harp on the show, don't tell thing so much. One of the most common reasons stories get rejected by me is too much telling and not enough showing.

What's the difference between telling and showing? I once heard it described as scene (showing) vs. summary (telling). Most of your story or novel should be told in scene, not just summarized. Scene brings the reader into the story and lets them experience the action along with the characters. Summary distances the reader from the narrative.

That said, there are times when telling is better than showing. For instance, if you need a transition between parts of the story, but nothing important is happening during that transition, just tell it. For example: They drove to the ranch. If nothing happens during the drive to the ranch and you try to show it, it'll just be boring. An excess of showing can be just as detrimental to the story as a lack of showing.

There is also another more subtle kind of telling that can creep into your writing when you think you are showing. That has to do with sentences like this:

She was tired.
He felt scared.

These examples merely tell something about the character instead of showing something. For example: She came in the front door, collapsed on the couch and groaned. She didn't want to move again until morning. This sentence shows us that she is tired without even using the word tired.

Spotting this kind of showing brings us to another one of those "rules." Eliminate all "to be" verbs from your writing. Well, in my opinion that's impossible and just plain stupid, BUT when you have a sentence with a was, is, am, were, etc. in it, there's a good chance you are telling rather than showing.

Showing will engage the reader in the story more than telling will, but telling is necessary at times too. Deciding which to do is just a matter of practice. Yes, that's right. Practice Good writing requires practice just like any other skill. Here's the practice exercise I gave to the Loafer Ladies:

Take the sentence, "Gary was afraid of heights," and write a short passage showing that Gary is afraid of heights without using the phrase "afraid of heights," or even "afraid" or "heights." Our group came up with some great little scenes revealing Gary's fear of heights. Go on and try it for yourself. Post it in the comments if you want. I'd love to see what you come up with.


Michelle H. said...

Great post! This is the biggest stickler for every writer. Show not tell. Let's see if I can come up with something about Gary...
Next time, Gary would pick the place they would sit.

He didn't hate the idea of eating at Pam's house. It had a wonderful view of the lake during the evening with the sun lowering over the canopies of trees as the waning beams set fire to the still water in orange-yellow color. And he loved Pam's cooking, the smell of pot roast and mashed potatoes making his stomach grumble in want.

Yet where she wanted to eat...

Pam laughed, her hands streaking up to tousled strands of her hair whipping about in the playful wind. "That feels so refreshing when the breeze comes up the side of the house."

Yeah, Gary thought to himself while watching her rush to the third-floor balcony with her eyes closing in relish. Yet his feet stood motionless at the entryway. His hand gripped the sliding door's frame, knuckles turning white, beads of sweat dotting along pores.

Pam glanced over, frowning. "Well, what are you waiting for? Dinner is getting cold."

I'm waiting for the floor to stop creaking like that. Gary bit his bottom lip, forcing a smile on lips. Yet the expression faded when another gust of wind slammed into the house. The balcony shook as the tablecloth's edge whipped upward, covering the steaming dishes. Pam rushed over and tamed the wild fabric.

"Maybe we should eat inside instead," she muttered.

Thank you, Lord! Gary grinned. His body swiveled on heels. "Fine with me, dear. I'll get the table set up."

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Show don't tell is one of the top rules in writing. And you're right, there are times to tell. But used sparingly. Thanks for the reminder!

L.T. Elliot said...

I understand that Gail Carriger did an excellent job of employing show AND tell in her book, Soulless. I haven't read it yet but I've heard many people talk about it.

Excellent post, Angie!

Lindsey Duncan said...

Nice post - thanks for sharing! I definitely agree that the main rule is "There are no rules."

Brenda Susan said...

His palms were warm and damp and his heart raced, but Gary continued the climb up the tree. The mumbling crowd below were giving him instructions and encouragement as he inched closer to the noisy kitten.
The solid feel of ground beneath his feet as he touched back down was the sweetest reward he could ask for!

elizabeth said...

Hi Angie! So true. I've had an instructor say to use 'tell' to get you from point A to point B.

I've heard that a reason why it's so much harder to write nowadays compared to before is because of movies. Movies hurl the viewers into action and hardly any kind of bogging down--backstory, infodumping, whatever...

Great post! :)

Jackee said...

Great thoughts, Angie! Scene versus summary is what I tell my head as I write. Is this scene or is it summary and what would be best here?

And one of my favorite things about Kate Di Camillo is that she can show us what the characters are feeling without ever using the exact word to drill it into the reader.

Have a great weekend!

Aubrie said...

I'm finally starting to see the difference between show and tell. It took a long time for me, and even now I have to think about a way to do it!

Linda Sandifer said...

Great post and great reminder. Even when we know better, it's easy to sink into sentences like "She was afraid," instead of showing. Also, sentences with "that" tend to be passive and can easily be reworked to be more active.

K.M. Weiland said...

Good article. I'm esp. fond of that first paragraph. Young writers can so easily get caught in the trap of believing that they have to strictly observe a set of rules. But, too often, the whole idea of rules saps the creative energy right out of art. It's much better to think of them more as guidelines. ;)

Julie Dao said...

Thanks for the elucidation! Showing and telling has always been confusing to me and your post has so clearly laid it out that I understand what to do and what to avoid doing.

Danyelle said...

Awesome post! Good writing is all about balance. :)

Gary peered over the edge and pulled back quickly. His head swam and he could feel a battery of butterflies square dancing in his stomach. He swallowed hard as sweat began to bead along his hairline. When he'd agreed to help his best friend out, he hadn't known that it would involve plastering himself against the rock face while trying to keep his feet on a bit of rock that jutted out with delusions of being a ledge. He groaned as his stomach gurgled. If it was the last thing he did, he was going to have his revenge.

Terresa said...

Great thoughts here. I enjoy reading books when the "showing" grabs me and doesn't let me know. Just finished "The Handmaid's Tale" by Atwood. Yow! That was a doosie.

Lisa said...

Showing is so important. I cringe whenever I read back through my old work when I was mostly just a teller. The story falls so flat without some showing.

Great Post!

Theresa Milstein said...

Great post with helpful examples.

When I first started writing, show not tell was my biggest problem.

Angie said...

Thanks all for stopping by and commenting. Thanks for the great little scenes too!

Larry and CIndy said...

Angie, WOW you are amazing!!! I just read and don't really relize why sometimes the story grabs me and pulls me in and sometimes I struggle along. You helped me realize why. You are Awesome, MOM