Monday, September 15, 2008

Tell Me How To Show

How many times have you heard the phrase “show, don’t tell?” Personally, I’ve lost count. Now, how many times have you heard it explained? I can count on one hand how often I’ve heard that. And the explanations I got never really clicked for me, so I went in search of my own answer. After much reading, researching, and deliberating, I discovered that it’s actually quite simple:

Showing is action-based. Telling is not.

Okay then, what is action? A easy way to answer that is to ask another question: what’s a verb? A verb is a word that expresses action. Therefore, showing is expressed when the verb is the focus. Let’s look at some examples.

A: James was a nerdy teacher's pet.
B: James was always the first to arrive for math. He settled into his front-row seat, arranging everything he'd need for class - math book in the upper right hand corner, notebook opened to a clean sheet and labeled with today's date, mechanical pencil in hand, and a spare pencil in the desk's pencil tray. Next, he pulled a two-pence coin from his pocket, then polished the surface with a corner of his t-shirt until it glinted in the afternoon sunlight. James grinned. Mrs. Sparks would be thrilled to add it to her collection.

The first is obviously telling. But what about the second? That first sentence is telling, yes, but what about the rest? James is doing something – settling in to his seat, arranging his materials, and polishing a coin meant as a gift for his teacher. These actions show us his personality, how he pays attention to detail, and how conscious he is of his teacher’s interests. To show James always arriving first for math could get tedious, even boring, so mixing this tiny bit of telling with showing can illustrate the goal of showing the reader how he’s a nerdy teacher’s pet.

Which brings me to my next point: how do you convert telling to showing? The key word here is “how.” How is James a nerdy teacher’s pet? What does he do that makes us think of him this way? He’s meticulous, he’s prepared, and he has a backup pencil. What kind of kid has a backup pencil? The kind that actually cares about taking notes. Let’s look at some more examples of telling.

#1: Tammy didn’t like Joey. He always did things like pull her hair or trip her on the school bus.
This is pretty straight forward. The reader is told about how Tammy feels about Joey, because of things that he’s done to her. The red flag here is “things that he’s done to her.” Show us these things, then we will see Tammy react. In both cases, Tammy and Joey will be doing something: Joey tormenting Tammy, and Tammy reacting with emotion. Bonus: these actions will also show us more about the character’s personalities. This rounds them out, elicits sympathy, and ends up making the whole story more interesting.

#2: The castle was dark and creepy.
This is a little harder, because it’s an inanimate object. The most common response writers have is to create an eerie and vivid description of the castle. That’s all fine and dandy, except...description is another form of telling. I’m not saying that description is a bad thing, but it’s not showing. I think many people get showing confused with vivid description.

To really turn this sentence into showing, you must find a way to weave in some action. And here’s an easy way to do this: use your characters. After all, who is perceiving this castle as dark and creepy? They are! Show us the castle through them, and you’ll find an easier way to introduce action. Especially since people can actually do things, while castles pretty much just sit there.

#3: Dinah baked a cake.
This is very tricky, because it’s telling in disguise. Why? Well, look at the sentence. Dinah is performing an action (baked). By my earlier definition, that should mean this is showing, right? Not exactly. The steps involved in baking a cake are too many to cram into one sentence. Plus, this is a golden opportunity to show us Dinah’s character. How does she bake the cake? Does she hum and dance around the kitchen? Does she slam the pans around and snap at anyone who gets to close? Does she bake elaborate cakes? Or are her culinary skills summed up by a burned stack of toast? There are so many opportunities for details here that will both make the scene more interesting, as well as round out her character.

“Showing” is an aspect of writing that infiltrates everything. It affects pacing, description, characterization, active vs. passive word choice, dialog...everything. But if you keep in mind that showing is simply action, then you can keep your characters doing something. It’ll keep your story moving forward, your reader involved, and it’ll be more fun to write. Harder, but more fun.


Marcia said...

I love how thorough you are with examples. That's showing, not telling! :)

I describe showing as use of action, dialogue and specific sensory detail, and telling as narration, summary, or explanation. Showing invites readers to be part of a scene and gives them a firsthand experience. Telling reports to them something that happened, or even more passively, something that is the case.

Description can be showing, if specific sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes are part of the scene. I think the trouble people run into with description is that they think it means a string of adjectives and adverbs.

One of the pitfalls of first person is that we can be tempted to let the MC narrate, explain, summarize and report -- in general, yak -- too much. We have to stay conscious of the need to show while in first person.

More literary, MFA, workshoppy-stuff, especially for adults but even for kids at times, tends to tell rather than show. This is the main reason much of it bores me. Give me showing anytime!

Marina said...

"Harder, but more fun!" Also, longer. Which is a good thing, I guess, if you're like me and tend to write short in a rush to get it all out. Then you get to go back and expand it into a proper book.

PJ Hoover said...

You nailed it when you said the key word is "how". I keep learning more and more about showing, and when I think about how much I've learned, it makes me realize how much more there is to learn also!
Great, great post!

Unknown said...

What a great post!

In general, I've found that the biggest telling problems is with emotions. Saying someone is sad or happy or whatever is easy: showing it is better. That's my biggest point to look for in revisions--emotions.

I think because we're always in a character's head, it's easy for us to just say the way it is--we're their gods, and can just make the world and people be what they want them to be by saying it. Showing it is better, but harder: showing requires us to come down on the character's level and watch them react instead of dictate their actions.

Brenda said...

great post...I am always having trouble showing instead of telling and then when I do show, I take it overboard...

I like the "ask how"...I will have to remember that and then when I have the how of showing, I can "ask how" to cut a little bit of my showing so that it isn't 300 words for just one emotion...grin...

Thanks for the helpful post...

Lilfix (blueboards)

Gottawrite Girl said...

Thanks for this post! I try to remember that showing is action, too. If the reader couldn't see it happen in real life, then it's just "internalization," which is quick to bore!

Tabitha said...

Marcia - glad you like my examples! I tried to pick from a variety, just to illustrate how wide-spread Showing is. :) You're so right about first person! And I love what you said about description. I'm going to focus on all the aspects that are directly affected by show vs. tell for the next few posts.

Marina - yep, definitely longer. Which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. :) Good if the longer version inserts the reader into the story. Bad if the longer version goes on a bit too long. :)

PJ - the more I learn, the more I see how much more I need to learn! Which part of what I love so much about this business. :)

Beth - exactly! Anytime an emotion word is used (happy, angry, panicking, etc), go visit The Bookshelf Muse's Emotion Thesaurus to see what actions you should be using. :)

Brenda - great to see you from the blue boards!! :) I had the same problem with going overboard. The "ask how" thing really helped me keep things in check. :) Hope it works for you!

GWG - definitely boring!! Action is like the beating heart of a story. If there's no action, there's no pulse...and then you've got a flatliner... :)

Anonymous said...

I've also read a lot about showing/telling, and I see a lot of people saying that all telling is bad. I think this is the first time I've ever seen anyone include the caveat that it's OK to mix in a LITTLE bit of telling with your showing, lest your bore your audience to tears with over description.

Great post.

Tabitha said...

LOL!! Yeah, I think most writers assume that all telling is bad. I'm more inclined to believe that balance is the key...and I think a tiny bit of telling keeps the story in balance. You know, that single grain of rice that tips the scales and all that. Except, of course, in this case it would be balancing the scales. :)

Anne Spollen said...

What a great post! And you wrote it to match your point :)

Tabitha said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it! :)

Jim Danielson said...

I've heard it so often, I think I stopped listening.

Thanks for posting "Show Don't Tell 301"!

Jim D

C.R. Evers said...

Great examples!!!!!


Tabitha said...

Jim - LOL!! Yeah, I think a lot of writers are there with you. :)

Christy - thanks!! Hope they were useful!

Lena Nilsson said...

I really loved the way you described "showing". It's hard not to "tell" too much, but to keep a balance. You had some fine examples here.

Imaginator (Blueboards)

Tabitha said...

Lena - thanks! That balance is hard to find, isn't it? But it feels so good once we find it. :) Glad you stopped by!

Gutsy Living said...

Thank you for explaining this to me in a telling, haha, way. No seriously, I wanted to ask you about rewriting. With 350 pages, there are so many things to remember to check, and I wonder if you have a format, (checklist) to go through the entire manuscript in a logical manner.

Tabitha said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond...flu has been running through my house. :(

I think a checklist like this would make a fantastic post!! I just got back from a local SCBWI conference, and they talked about revision and many other great things. Look for a post in the near future on this! And thanks for the suggestion! :)