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Tips for writers - Show me, don't tell me

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Old 03-17-2007, 03:02 PM
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Default Tips for writers - Show me, don't tell me

Writers are constantly being admonished to 'show, not tell'.

They are told this because its much harder to be interested in a story if you are being passively 'told', instead of actively involved. Telling accomplishes involving the reader, telling accomplishes informing the reader.

This article is intended to be cookbook on how to accomplish the 'showing' instead of the 'telling', not another admonition.

We'll start by taking a little trip back through time. Back to the first grade, at least for most of us. Back even earlier than that, to when we were toddlers and didn't have much grasp of the language.

Close your eyes and think back. Remember when you needed to tell mom or dad something important? You wanted something from the fridge? You spotted a worm on the rug? You spilled something or perhaps you saw a bird in the tree?

What did you do? You ran up to mom or dad, tugged on a sleeve and proceeded to speak in an alien language. Mom or Dad looked at you and finally said 'show me'.

Off you went and pointed at whatever it was.

Eventually, Mom or Dad figured out what you were pointing at and understood.

That is the ultimate 'show' don't 'tell'.

Now how do we accomplish that in the world of writing?

We have to do basically the same thing. Draw the audience a picture that they can look at and draw it so well, they get the message without being told what to look for.

Here's an example:


Jason woke up in the dark and got out of bed. He wished that the clock didn't go off so early but school started before it was light these days.

The blaring of his clock radio woke Jason with a start. He threw the covers back and sat up on the edge of the bed.

"Why does morning have to come so early?" Jason muttered. He stood up and peered at the clock. "Five am. Right on time. I really wish school didn't start before it was light. I hate winter."

In both cases I got the point across that Jason was awakened by a clock, that he got out of bed, that he didn't like having the clock go off so early and that school started before it was light.

In the first case I used narration to accomplish that. I handed you facts which you absorbed.

In the second case, I gave you action and allowed you to pick up on the facts.

Notice that in the second case I used dialog as a tool to get some of those facts across? One of the things that most writers who get told 'not enough showing, too much telling' are being told without hearing it is 'stop telling me what your character is thinking or saying. Let your character think it or say it.'

Let's go back to the first paragraph and I'll show you what I mean. We start out with two sentences:

Jason woke up in the dark and got out of bed. He wished that the clock didn't go off so early but school started before it was light these days.

The first part is all action. There are many ways to narrate the fact that the clock went off and Jason woke up. The sentence I used is ok, but it's bland. Let's break that sentence down:

Jason wakes up. Why? Because the clock goes off. Why does that wake him up? Because the clock is loud.

We could say:
Jason woke up to a loud alarm clock

That's pretty mild. We want to involve the reader from the start, so lets try to find a way to shock them just as hard as poor Jason's about to be shocked by the alarm.

Alarm clocks can ring, they can buzz, they can blare, they can turn on with a radio announcer talking. In this case, I decided that a blaring alarm would be a good shock.

You might choose differently. You could say:

The incessant buzzing of his alarm clock intruded in Jason's dream, dragging him to wakefulness.

Or you could say:

The alarm beside his bed jangled, jarring Jason out of sleep

(hmm, maybe not... too many 'j' words in a row in that one)

Or... you get the idea. You want to introduce the alarm clock in some way that the reader understands and sympathizes with Jason. Not too many people like being awakened by an alarm after all.

Now let's take the second section:

Jason gets up, gets out of bed, whines about how early it is, notices that it's dark, and is unhappy about school starting before it's light.

Just about everything in that section is something Jason could either say or think. If you look back at my second example, I choose to have him mutter aloud. You could have him mutter and think. Or just think, or stretch, yawn, gripe loudly and snarl at the clock.

Now here are some paragraphs for you to rewrite. Use the information above to turn these from 'telling' into 'showing'

1. Mary looked up at the sky and noticed the birds were flying south. She sniffed the air and smiled at the scent of pine from the woods nearby. Winter was on its way, the storms would be coming soon but right now, it was a lovely autumn.

2. Bill stood on the edge of the dock and looked out at the ocean. White caps covered the stormy waves and dark clouds were building on the horizon. The boat race was only two days off but if the weather report was right, there was a monsoon on the way.

3. Jingo the monkey scaled the palm tree, intent on snagging a coconut from the top. His fingers and toes clung to the bark as he climbed, allowing him to reach the top leaves without a problem. Grabbing one of the coconuts from the tree, he hurled it at the beach below where it broke open
on a rock. He scurried down the tree and grabbed his prize from the ground, dancing around and munching on the tender insides of the coconut.

4. The red ball bounced down the street. Car horns blared as drivers swerved to get out of its way, screaming cuss words at each other.

Notice a very important fact about exercise #4. The main character is a ball. Balls can't think. They aren't alive and they can't use dialog. But the people in the cars CAN, even though they aren't the main character.

5. The screen door swung back and forth in the breeze, its latch broken. A curtain blew out one of the open windows then hung down the side of the house like a tail. Shutters banged as the breeze picked up and smoke began to flow out the kitchen door. Flames crackled up a door frame as the house caught fire.

In #5 you have nothing that can speak or think. You have a house that's catching on fire, and no living things around. The house is now your character. This is by far the hardest of the exercises because you have to narrate the story in a non-passive manner. Draw the reader in and make him identify with the house in such a way that he cares whether the house burns down or not.

Now that you've read my cookbook, and you've done the exercises, it's time for you to turn to your own writing.

Dig out some older things you've written and see where you can turn 'showing' into 'telling'.

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