Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Writers' Wednesday: Showing vs. Telling

Welcome to Writers’ Wednesday!

I’ll be away for a few days, so you’ll have some extra time to post your comments. Remember: anyone who leaves me a comment will be entered into a drawing for a $5 Amazon gift certificate!
The winning name will be drawn and announced on Easter Sunday, April 8.

By the way, I’m always looking for guest bloggers, so if you have an idea for a Writers’ Wednesday post you’d like to write, email and let me know!


We hear it time and time again, in all the writing advice books and columns: Show, don’t tell.

But sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially for new writers. So how do we identify the difference in our writing, and how can we spice up scenes to “show” the reader what we mean, rather than “tell” the reader? Let’s look at some examples…

Mary was spoiled rotten.

This is pure telling. How do we know she is spoiled? Why should we believe you?

Mary stomped her feet and screwed up her face as she wailed, “But I want the pony! You told me I could have whatever I wanted for my eighth birthday!”

Okay, much better. Here, we see Mary’s age, her behavior, and her demanding tone of voice. The author doesn’t need to tell us that Mary is spoiled. In fact, the author doesn’t use the word “spoiled” at all, yet we can figure it out easily enough through the child’s words and actions.

I was miserable after Edgar left me. All I thought about was him. All I dreamt about was him. I missed him so much that I thought I’d never be happy again.

Well, we get the general idea here that the narrator is sad. But all four sentences really say the same thing, and all four sentences tell much more than they show.

For a solid week after Edgar left, I didn’t get out of bed except to find more tissues to blow my nose and wipe away my tears. When I managed to sleep, I found myself in dreams with him, revisiting days long-gone when we ate dinner by candlelight and made love by moonlight. When I awoke alone, the agony that twisted my stomach inside out almost choked me. The telephone rang, and I ignored it. My mother stopped by with soup, and I told her to go away. The sun came up and went down again, and all I wanted to do was grab it by the throat and tell it to stop. If I couldn’t be happy, then time might as well stop altogether.

Notice that in the above revision, there is no one sentence that tells us the narrator is miserable. Rather, through her thoughts and actions, we deduce her feelings of despair. Trust that your reader is intelligent enough to figure this out.

Some Tips to Keep in Mind:

1. Use details that appeal to the five senses. Make the reader feel as if he or she is actually in the scene. Is your hero nervous because he’s just proposed to the heroine? Don’t tell us that. Instead, show us the weather outside, the wail of the wind that echoes the doubt inside his mind. Show us the food in the restaurant where they‘re eating - maybe it tastes like sawdust because nerves have dulled his tongue. Show us the rough fabric of the suit he bought to wear for the occasion, that brushes against his knee as he taps one anxious foot on the floor. Show us the quick pulse in his wrist as he waits for the heroine to make her decision.

2. Use dialogue. I’ve found this to be one of the best ways to get away from telling. When your characters speak for themselves, they naturally show us their temperament, opinion, even vocabulary level and method of communicating.

3. Use actions to show us the characters’ personalities. Have a neighbor who’s a busybody? Don’t tell us. Show us the ways in which she peers through her blinds, goes through her neighbors’ garbage, listens in on telephone conversations. The more active, interesting examples you can sprinkle through your plot, the better. Here’s a challenge for you: write down a list of the 3 adjectives that you think describe your protagonist or antagonist. Then go back through the scenes you’ve written and make sure those words never appear. Find other ways to reveal those character traits. Now you’re showing!

4. Trust your reader. When you create a scene, don’t give in to the urge to tell us how the characters are feeling. Show us instead, through their words and thoughts and actions.

5. Finally, consider using animals/pets to reveal something about your characters’ personalities. I won’t go into it on this post, but I wrote an article on this technique that you can access here. I’ve found that using animals in my storylines, no matter how briefly, can do wonders to show us something about the characters and move away from the boring habit of telling.

Sometimes it’s tough to get used to showing rather than telling in your writing, but once you get the hang of it, your work will come to life. And just for fun, here are 2 sentences you can use to practice. Can you change these both from telling to showing? Leave me your revisions in your comment, or link to your blog.

Good luck, and thanks for stopping by!

#1. Sherry was sick and tired of her boss’s advances, and she told him as much one night after work.

#2. Kendra and Bill took the path that led away from the house. They agreed that although it might be dangerous, they needed to investigate the child’s disappearance without the police following them. Basic Author


hellojed said...

Hi Allie, my entry is here:

Great idea, thanks!

Jennah said...

great post. This was really helpful. I think all writers at some point struggle with this. I know I do.

Beth said...

very nice tips for writing

Joye said...

I was a teacher also and when I read a book I see alot of grammatical errors. Also spelling. I still read and have a very tall TBR pile.

Marianne Arkins said...

#1. Sherry was sick and tired of her boss’s advances, and she told him as much one night after work.

"Get your grubby hands off me!" Sherry slapped her boss's face and moved away from his octopus arms. "I've had it with you. Touch me again and I'll take you to court."

I'm too tired to face the second one... it would require more brain cells than I have to spare right now -- describing the eerie landscape, etc. I have three hundred more words to write on my own WIP. I need all the cells I can get.

Where're you headed?

Jess said...

Really interesting post! :)

Judy said...

That was fun... can we do it again next week???? Huh, huh?

btw... here's mine:

Missy Sue said...

This post was so helpful! I enjoyed my visit

Amy S. said...

Great post!

Charity said...

From the better late or never category, and it kind of got away from me. It’s here.

Meg Allison said...

Hi, Allie!

Great post ... I really need this reminder from time to time. Thanks for the great tips!