Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How To Tackle the Show vs. Tell Problem


Ack! My internet has been down all day. I have been in the corner twitching with withdrawals. So sorry this is so late.

One of the “rules” I hear all the time is to show not tell. The first time I heard that I thought, “What does that mean, anyways?

Well, TELLING means you are just, umm, telling the reader what is going on. SHOWING means you show them :D Seems easy, huh? Not always. It is ridiculously easy to fall into the habit of telling.

As this is something I used to do….A LOT…it is something I have become fairly good at spotting. When you are writing, you want to draw the reader in as much as possible. Action and dialogue are two elements that really help to keep the story moving, that draw the reader in, make the story exciting, and all that other fun stuff.

So, if you have a scene where your main character is angry, just telling the reader, “Eric was mad,” is okay…but probably won’t be nearly as good as, “Eric’s eyes flashed and the big vein in his forehead throbbed like it was about to burst from his skin.” Don’t tell the reader he’s mad…show him.

In my first book, Treasured Lies, my main character, Min, was irritated that she had fallen in a puddle and made a fool of herself. I had her storming up the stairs to her room with the description, “Min was freezing in her wet clothes and annoyed that she had yet again made a fool of herself.” (Or something to that affect…it’s been a while) :D

One of my fabulous critique buddies pointed out that this was “telling.” She said that I should show my readers that Min was irritated, instead of just telling them. So, the passage was changed to: “Shivers ran through her chilled body as she climbed the stairs. She huffed and kicked at the muddy skirts that tangled around her legs, irritated that she had managed to disgrace herself once again.”

I do tell you WHY she was irritated, but I also show that she is freezing, and show her annoyance with her actions (huffing and kicking skirts). Yes, it takes longer, uses more words, but the result is much more effective.

Now, are there occasions when you should tell rather than show? Definitely. Physical descriptions are pretty difficult to “show.” If someone has blue eyes, it is perfectly acceptable to just say they have blue eyes. And instances like in the above sentence, when you need to explain why someone is acting as they are.

Show the emotion, tell the reason. Show me that your main character is sad by describing her face, her tears, her sobs. Don’t tell me she’s crying…show me: “Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook.” (as this is just an example, I won’t stress over the fact that I used the word ‘her’ six times in two sentences – but you get the point of the showing over telling). :D

Then you can tell me why she is crying. “Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook. She just couldn’t believe her mother had forgotten her birthday again.”

As you can see, the sentences “Eric was mad,” “Min was freezing and annoyed,” “Laura cried,” tell us what is going on, but there is no action, they aren’t exciting, they don’t connect you to what is going on.

The new sentences:

“Eric’s eyes flashed and the big vein in his forehead throbbed like it was about to burst from his skin.”

“Shivers ran through her chilled body as she climbed the stairs. She huffed and kicked at the muddy skirts that tangled around her legs, irritated that she had managed to disgrace herself once again.”

and

“Laura sat on her bed, her arms wrapped around her legs. Her tears fell unheeded down her face as her shoulders shook.”

These make me care, they are exciting to read, there is something going on. I don’t care if someone cries…I do care if they are curled around themselves with uncontrollably shaking shoulders.

Dialogue is another great way to change a telling passage into a showing extravaganza.

For example:

(telling) David and Tony argued back and forth about who was right. = blah

(showing) “You did too!” David shouted, his face growing redder by the minute.
“Oh whatever. I did not and I have witnesses,” Tony said, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, well I have witnesses too.”
“Liar.”
“You’re the liar! Just admit you’re wrong and get it over with.”
“No way.”
“Yes way!”

= oooo, action, dialogue, something’s going on!! :D

So, bottom line – if it is possible to show something rather than tell it, do so :) But don’t stress over the occasions when telling is necessary, because they will come up. For the most part though, try adding some action or dialogue to really help show the reader what is going on instead of just telling them.

10 comments:

Windsong said...

This is excellent advice! I especially like the SHOW THE EMOTION, TELL THE REASON part. There is a balance between the two, and I like how you lay that balance out. That is truly inspired. :D I've never heard it just like that before, but I think you've nailed it on the head. Thanks for sharing!

Lady Glamis said...

Great post! Sometimes telling is better if you want to be more passive for the sake of the story, if that makes any sense at all. I would like to do a series of posts sometime that focuses on showing and telling. It's talked about all over the place, and until I explore this in depth myself, I won't be able to pin it down.

It looks like you have a great grasp of the concept. Thank you for some great pointers!

Cindy said...

These are good examples of showing versus telling and some good guidelines to stick to for people who aren't sure how. Thanks for the post!

Michelle McLean said...

Thanks Windsong!

And Lady Glamis, you are so right - when I first started writing and heard the whole telling vs showing thing, I thought you could NEVER tell - that you always had to show everything. But there really are times when telling is best. The trick is figuring out when telling is the better option :D Which is why I am very grateful for a great group of crit buddies :) They point it out to me when I get it wrong :D

christinefonseca said...

Michelle - I love your examples!!! Great post.

Bethanne said...

No way!
Yes way!

Love it. I love dialogue, though it can also be telling. I love how it reveals the characters. :D

Great post.

Eric said...

This is an awesome post, addressing something I always need help with. You really explain everything clearly. Thanks alot.

adrcremer said...

Excellent post and priceless picture of rule-frustrated kitty! Thanks for the great examples.

ElanaJ said...

You need to do a post on How To Amaze Elana and just link to this. ;-)

SugarScribes said...

Grreat post and very informative, helpful advice. Thank you for the awesome examples of showing vs tellng.