Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Show vs. Tell

I've been doing some reading on self-editing and revisions. The things I am reading aren't necessarily new to me, but great reminders. I'm kind of using this post as my notebook. I hope you don't mind.

I started this reading segment because of a rejection I received recently. Asking some friends for a boost of my confidence, and letting them look through my manuscript, I decided that while it was good and polished, I still have many areas I need to improve.

So today, I thought that maybe we could review the 'show vs. tell' part of writing. After reading some books, it's easy to see how important this is. We all know that it is important to show the reader what happens as it is happening. It is important to show the story rather than just tell the reader about them.

It's important to use the setting for character information. Rather than tell the reader every detail of the room or park, drop your reader into the middle of the society and let them fend for themselves. Allow them to experience the details of the room as the characters chase each other around the chaise in the parlor, or pour  a drink from the crystal decanter on by the stone cold hearth. It is also important to show this is real time. Don't take time out of the story to flash back or give back-story as it detracts from the pace of the story and can confuse the reader. Show the back-story or hint at it through actions or dialogue.

An important thing we need to understand in order to fully grasp this concept is to know the difference between a summary and a scene. In one book it compared showing to watching a scene in a movie, whereas telling is like you're recounting the movie to a friend. (I don't know about you, but I suddenly saw things completely different after I read that.) Give the reader experiences!

It's like saying:

Jimmy stomped into the room, slamming the door behind him. He thrust his coat onto a chair without looking to see if it slipped to the floor. His eyes flashed with unrestrained fire as he advanced on his prey.


Jimmy was angry.

A good rule to live by is the more intense a scene, the more showing you do. Remember that all scenes should advance the character or the story.

What is the best way to do that?

Right. Show it as it happens.

While telling has it's place, too much telling is lazy writing. Telling, or narrative, is good for transitions between scenes. It helps the story move quickly. Just be careful not to have too much telling. On the same point, you can't have too much showing either. The reader does need to take a break from time to time, and the narrative part helps give the reader a bit of a break. Be careful not to use narrative to tell what was already shown in the dialogue or action.

Another good tip is to use actions, metaphors, and dialogue to show a character's emotion.

Entering the street again, Ivy blinked against the blinding rays of the hot sun. Dancing across the cobbled street like she had two left feet, she narrowly escaped being trampled by a horse and carriage. “I’m so late,” she muttered, commanding her burning legs to move faster.

Obviously you don't have to use all three in a single paragraph to show a character's emotion, but you can. And you don't have to show everything. Allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about some things. That's half the fun of reading!

So, now it's your turn!

Here's a little scene for you to practice with. Take this simple narration and turn it into a scene. See what happens! Feel free to share it with me or just save it for yourself. Have fun!

Don walked into the cafe. The smell in the place was terrible, and reminded him how depressed he was. A small dog barked at him, startling him. So he kicked it.

"How dare you!" a woman shouted. She was an imposing-looking woman, seated at a table holding the dog's leash.

Don told her what she could do with her dog, and she called for the waitress. The waitress came over and asked Don to leave.

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