On Writing: Tell, Don’t Show

In Description, Monica Wood commented: Don’t enslave yourself to showing. “Show don’t tell” is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective and thrilling as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.”

As a reader, one of my pet hates is when one character is talking to another, and they retell the entire story up to that point, so as a writer, when I get to a place where one character has to tell another what the reader already knows, I write something like, “and Sam told Sally about the woman who tried to kill him and how he ran off instead of trying to find out who it was.” Avoiding repetition is one reason telling is so much better than showing at times. Makes the story move faster. Might not be immortal prose, but it moves the story along.

The worst offenders of the tell, don’t show suggestion are lawyer books. They spend the first half of the book laying out the story, then the second half repeating that story in a courtroom setting. If a reader can skip a whole slew of chapters and not miss a moment of the story, the writer has not done his or her job. If the writer wants to do the courtroom scene, then make sure what is shown is new. Otherwise, simply tell what went on in a few short sentence and get to the good stuff.

Another time telling is better than showing is if a scene has no conflict, no surprises, no twists. If a character sets out to do something and accomplishes it without any problems, then showing is a waste. Just tell it. Don’t build up to  . . . nothing.

A way to know if it’s better to show or to tell is to decide what you want to accomplish with a scene. If the immediacy of a scene is important, show it. If the reactions of a character who was not involved in the scene are most important, then it’s possible to have one character tell the other what happened and then show the character’s emotion.

When writing More Deaths Than One, I worried that I was cheating readers by doing the big disclosure  at the end via letter (in other words, telling), but the importance of the scene lay not in finding out the truth of who Bob was but in the different ways Bob and Kerry reacted to the truth. It was about them and their relationship more than the deeds themselves. It was also about the emotion of the person writing the letter and how that emotion bound all of them together. So basically, the letter was all about telling rather than showing the disclosure, and showing rather than telling the emotion it evoked.

When do you tell instead of show? (I mean you personally, not writers in general.) How do you make it effective and thrilling?

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Ranting And Writing

We are always told to show not tell, yet new writers often have a hard time understanding the difference. And apparently, so do professional writers.

I found this example of tell in a book by a bestselling author. She was enraged, and this was very visible. You and I certainly could never get away with such a ridiculous sentence. How was her rage visible? Did she turn red? Did flames shoot out of the top of her head? Describing how she looked when angry, though not ideal, is better than simply saying her anger was visible, but an accomplished writer shows the anger, shows what the character did.

Perhaps she was angry at her fiancé and so she slapped him. (As an aside, why is this still acceptable behavior for women? If men aren’t allowed to hit women, then women shouldn’t be allowed to hit men.) Or perhaps she tore off her engagement ring and tossed it in the river. Even better if she surreptitiously picked up a pebble, then palmed her engagement ring, and threw the pebble in the river. That way she could show many things besides her anger: she can show that she is smart, controlled, even manipulative. Maybe she isn’t even angry; could be she just wants the guy to think she was angry.

Any way you look at it, the sentence as it stands is weak. So is this one by the same author: He remained perfectly still, not moving a muscle. At least she showed him doing something, but remaining perfectly still and not moving a muscle mean the same thing. Redunancy, anyone?

While I’m on my rant here, I have something else I’ve been meaning to say. The preferred usage now is to use a instead of his or her when referring to a limb. For example: He put a hand in his pocket. The reasoning is that if you say he put his hand in his pocket, it presupposes that he has a single hand. But I always wonder: if he puts a hand in his pocket, whose hand is it? His? A disembodied hand he just happened to have lying around? Okay, I’m getting ridiculous here, but it shows the ambiguity of words.

Sometimes ambiguity is acceptable, but more often it’s the lazy way of writing. Makes me wonder why readers shell out hard-earned money when authors are so willing to repay them with sentences such as She was enraged, and this was very visible.

Diatribing Show-n-Tell — My opinion on writing

Karl C. Klein, today’s guest blogger and the author of Unnatural Girl, soon to be published by Second Wind Publishing, has consented to show and tell his views on writing:

I’m new to writing. I don’t have the benefit of a formal education. I’ve not been writing since before I born, having grabbed the doctor’s pen soon after sliding into the world, scribing some Hemingway-ese prose on my swaddling blanket.

I’m a newbie, a neophyte, a rookie, a babe, a novitiate, a novice, newcomer, fledgling, tenderfoot and a greenhorn.

I’m wet behind the ears.

I’ve been reading many critiques over the past couple years to the point where my teeth want to turn around in my head and eat my brain. (Normally I say “until my eyes bleed,” but since I’m going to climb all over cliches, I thought I’d use something fresh).

If we feel the need to suggest that someone not ‘tell’ but rather ‘show’ his or her story, he or she is not to have clue what we’re talking about. (Remember, I’m a neophyte, an outsider who doesn’t know the jargon.)

“Critics too often forget they’re supposed to help, not hurt.” Lewis Black, from his book.

“Show not tell” has become a cliche, something else a writer should avoid. On some critiques, I can see the critic with her chin raised, slashing at the air like swatting flies.

I have never in any of my critiques used the expressing in any way: “show not tell,” or in any form.

I think the writer, when told something like this, should ask: “Why?” and get a better answer than: “Agents and Publishers say so.” We can and should ask why if we don’t understand and we should demand an answer.

Here’s my general advice to writers seeking their voice (when we begin writing, that’s what we do in a long, painful process — we seek our voice, which is not to be mistaken with the generic voice ‘agents and publishers’ would like to mold their writers)

This applies to third person, but much to first person, too.

Let me get this out of the way:

Don’t preach — ever. If you want to make some spiritual, religious or social point, write an essay. It’s fine for your characters to have a point of view, but keep it real. (Which is not to say the story shouldn’t make a point — even my parabolic stories look like the message is incidental).

(here’s the show and tell in a way that’s easily understood):

Let your characters tell the story. In third person, I don’t want to hear nothing from the narrator. No opinions and no hyperbole. Nothing will set my teeth on edge quicker than in 3rd person the narrator stating: “She was beautiful!”

I think in the million and a half words I’ve committed to manuscript, I’ve used ten exclamations marks. Again, ‘showing.’

If you unfurl your scene clear and sharp, the characters should show the reader everything the reader needs to know without ‘stage direction’ (telling) or what I call “movie scripting.”

I say it this way: Have faith in your reader.

1) Don’t preach
2) Let the characters tell the story
3) Have faith in the reader
4) Avoid movie scripting
5) Avoid wordiness
6) Don’t default (assuming stereotypes as universal concepts)

Telling:
John walked into the room, approached the table, greeted Sally and sat on the chair. Sally greeted him back and asked if he’d had breakfast. John wasn’t one for breakfast, but knew it was polite to accept something offered. He told her no. She asked if he wanted eggs.

Better:
“Hi, Sally.” John dropped to the chair.
“Good morning. Had breakfast?”
“Nope.”
“Eggs?”
“Love ’em?”
“How do you like them?”
“Hell, I like ’em fine!.”

There’s a best kept secret rule in writing:.

Only one point-OH-view per paragraph. If you keep this rule in mind, you can cut out 96% of your ‘saids, asks, questioned,’ etc. Why do you wish to do that? I’m glad you asked.

If you look at the dialog above, you that see no ‘saids’ are needed. The quotes indicate direct speech and the way I laid this out, it’s obvious who’s saying what. Said’s would merely be wordy and get in the way. When reading, MOST people skip them anyway.

next line:

Sally got up from her chair.

“from her chair” is wordy. We can have faith in the reader to know she was sitting on a chair.

Sally stood.

When I do a critique, if I find the writing heavy with movie scripting, I’ll copy-n-paste a few paragraphs and mark in red what I find wrong, then rewrite the section, explaining each suggestion and why I feel it makes the writing better.

Needless to say, I invest a great deal of time in my critiques.

Good writers work in groups. Great writers work alone.

On Writing: The Body Doesn’t Lie. Or Does It?

Body language is as important in writing as it is in real life. If you don’t want to explain what your character is feeling or doing, the best way to show it is by their body language.

For example, a person who is lying will often rub an eye, touch gently beneath an eye, put a hand up to the mouth, touch the nose or lips with a finger. Sometimes a liar will tug at an ear, scratch the neck, pull at his collar, jiggle a foot, blink more than normal. People tend not to look in the eyes of the person being lied to. And they hide their palms.

Showing the palms is a way of saying that someone has nothing to hide, and it is a gesture that we all subconsciously react to. But the gesture can be faked, and so can looking someone in the eyes. If you want to show that a character is lying, you can have your liar look another character in the eyes while showing the palms. By mentioning these two signals together, they become important, and can show that the first character is purposely lying. Of course, they can also show what they normally do, that the character is telling the truth.

That’s the problem with body language: it is ambiguous. Scratching the head can mean that a person is thinking or is confused, but it can also mean the person has dandruff. Rubbing an eye or covering the mouth can show that a person is hiding something, but that thing can be as innocent as hiding sleepiness or a yawn. Folding the arms across the chest can mean a person is defensive; it can also mean the person is cold.

Certain signals are subtle in real life, but when used in a scene, they can telegraph the truth. A person generally crosses their legs toward a person they like and away from a person they are not interested in. If you write that a character smiled and crossed her legs away from him, it’s obvious what is going on, even though in life we seldom catch on as quickly.

The same is true of pointing a foot toward the door. It’s a signal that the person wants to leave, and that seldom-noticed signal becomes obvious when written.

Another bit of body language that works well in print is mirroring. A subordinate mirrors the body language of a leader, so your band of characters might have a nominal leader, but their true leader is the one they ape. Interestingly, team members who works well together have the same posture and body language, which shows the rapport of the group.

The best way of learning body language is simply to watch people. Look at their hands and feet when they talk. Have friends purposely lie to you and see how they act when they do. Pay attention to your own gestures, and try to keep them at a minimum. Not only will you be harder to read, the fewer the gestures, the more intelligent and refined you will seem.