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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Show versus Tell, example five

From contest entries and critiques that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that often people don’t quite understand what exactly is “showing” and what exactly is “telling.” So, I’m doing this series to give numerous examples so that you can see for yourself the various kinds of “telling” that can occur in your own manuscript, and suggestions for fixing it.

She rocked back and forth on the porch swing.

Her family had moved into this house when Daddy carried Mama over the threshold. She’d broken this swing a few times by jumping on it, her brother had dug a hole under the front porch, and her sister had painted flowers along the white-washed railings. The neighbors were friendly and the tree-lined street cool in summertime. Her backyard ran against a giant meadow that belonged to some development company.


The second paragraph is all “telling” information about her family and her house.

Does the reader absolutely need to know all that information right at that moment in the story? If not, then cut it.

If you just wanted to show the house and neighborhood, there are more active ways to “show” it. For example:

Old Mrs. Tarkington shuffled past the house, staying in the shade from the trees lining the street. She raised one arm in a wave, the other arm clutching yet another casserole, probably meant for deaf Mr. Billings next door. Yup, he was already on his porch anticipating his dinner that night.

Bless Mrs. Tarkington. Would Mr. Billings—or any of the other neighbors—starve without her?


In the example, I show the trees lining the street as well as the friendliness of the neighbors with a concrete example of kindness.

Or:

She tripped a little over the threshold. Really graceful. She ought to fix that. Then she giggled at an image of Daddy tripping as he carried Mama over the threshold into the house over thirty years ago. Naw, the house had been new then—no loose boards.


In the example, I kept the info about Daddy and Mama over the threshold because she realized she needed to fix it—linking the memory with the current action.

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