Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Show, Don't Tell

By Ronda Simmons

Ah, the vicious SDT (not to be confused with an STD, which can also be vicious). If you want to really piss off a writer, just make the old Show, Don’t Tell comment. As in, “Your dialog is fantastic and you’ve definitely done your research on the social habits of mid-century urbanites, but your plot suffers from too much telling.” 

That kind of critique gets under a writer’s skin as the most ambiguous, pain in the neck, weak as water comment ever made. And yet, mastering the art of Show, Don't Tell is one of the most important skills a writer needs in her or his tool box.

What does “Show, don’t tell” mean? 

Here is the definition straight from Wikipedia, so you know it’s accurate: 

Show, don't tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description.

Huh? OK, here’s what it really means: 

Telling states facts or opinions and tells the readers what they should think or feel while Showing describes a situation and creates a mental image. It uses sensory detail to let the readers come to their own conclusions.

To put it another way, showing is about dramatizing. Telling is about explanation. Easy to describe, but so hard to do.

Check Out The Difference

Gwendolyn was angry at her boyfriend.

Boring! A better way to show that she is angry is like this:

Gwendolyn slammed the car door and stomped into the restaurant.

“What’s wrong, Gwennie?” asked Bill.

“Nothing,” hissed Gwendolyn. “You wanted to go out, so let's go out.”

Showing often requires more words than telling. Use all of your senses and really get your readers into your character’s headspace. Be specific, use details. To help identify the tell sentences in your writing, search for red flag words that indicate you are telling instead of showing.

They include: to, when, realized, could see, felt, seemed, thought, knew, believed, hoped, after, before, considered, just to name a few. There are some great resources out there when you are ready to dig deeper into “Show, Don’t Tell.” 

Pop Quiz!

Google is your friend

A quick internet search will bring you hundreds of articles in almost every magazine, website or blog devoted to the craft of writing.

Foremost among them is “Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It)” by Janice Hardy. You can get the Kindle version at Amazon for the bargain price of $3.99

Here is an example of a telling sentence from my own writing:

      I was cold and wet with a headache that would probably kill me.

Rachel Weaver, author of Point of Direction (Oprah loved it and so do I), correctly pointed out that it is a tell  sentence. It is much better like this:

    I shivered in the cold rain while the demons inside my head tried to kick their way through my skull.

A commandment you can break, with caution

Telling is not always bad

As Chuck Wendig (keynote speaker at the upcoming NCW conference and certified penmonkey) says, "all writing advice is bullshit.” I’ve been told that he knows his shit about bull. Sometimes it’s just more dang efficient to tell your readers that your hero is at the beach rather than writing three pages about sand.

And in the end, remember, you are the author. 

You make the call.


Patricia Stoltey said...

I received that exact comment in my writers group last night, and I've been doing this long enough that I should know better. Sometimes we even tell and show on the same page, which is even worse. :D

Ronda Simmons said...

I hear ya, Patricia! Sometimes even when I think I've done a good job of showing, not telling, I haven't!

Laura Mahal said...

"And in the end, remember, you are the author.
You make the call."

("I just called, to say, I love you. I just called, to say how much I care.")

Seriously, that tagline should appear on bottles of ibuprofen. "Guaranteed to tame the demons inside [your] head [trying] to kick their way through [your] skull." I would immediately switch to that brand of pain medicine.

Excellent post, Ronda Simmons.

Ronda Simmons said...

Thanks, Laura! You may be on to something. Special pain relievers for writers. I think we could name one "Writer's Block, when the words just don't come easy." Or maybe "Tense-ion to keep your tenses regular." I bet you could come up some better examples than these!

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