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Monday, June 09, 2008

Show versus Tell, example four

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 stared at the funeral wreath, full of white lilies. She remembered Daddy’s garden, thriving with lush red roses and golden daffodils.


The second sentence is “telling” the reader about a remembrance. The question to ask is, does the reader absolutely need to know the information about Daddy’s garden right at that moment?

If no, then cut it.

If they do need to know the info, there’s a more active and emotional way to “show” it. For example:

The cloying scent of the funeral wreath made her stomach heave and her throat gag. Daddy would have hated it. Lilies had had no place in his garden among the more stately roses and cheerful daffodils.

It figures that the worst wreath would come from Barnaby Jenkins, the slime. And she was stuck holding it for the next hour.


In the example, I’ve added more emotional reactions to the wreath (heaving, gagging, Daddy hating it) and more emotive words to Daddy’s garden (stately, cheerful). It simply makes the information more alive.

I also added the second paragraph to show why the reader needed to know about the wreath and Daddy’s garden (actually, Daddy’s flower preferences)—the information was needed to explain her emotional reaction in the current action, her holding the darn thing for another hour.

2 comments:

  1. I'm really interested in getting this.

    Aren't the second and third sentences in the revised example still "telling" of her remembrance, albeit a more emotive version?

    I get why they're better. I just want to clarify whether they're showing or telling in my head.

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  2. This is a good question, although it goes into nuances of Show/Tell that not all writers are at a stage to recognize.

    In the first example, the author or an omniscient narrator is telling the reader what she's remembering, her daddy's garden. It is not really in her own point of view. She wouldn't be thinking, "I am remembering Daddy's garden, thriving with lush red roses and golden daffodils." Such a thought, with that phrasing, is not quite true to life.

    In the second example, I've written it in deep Point of View so that the sentences, even though they're in third person past tense, are her direct thoughts. "Daddy would have hated it." (her thoughts)

    The next sentence is taking on the remembered words and feelings of her Daddy: "Lilies have no place in my garden among the more stately roses and cheerful daffodils."

    In writing it in deep POV, it takes on more emotion and is in character, rather than feeling like an omniscient narrator telling the reader what she's thinking.

    Another thing I ought to point out (that I didn't in the post) is that telling isn't always bad, and I am not saying you should get rid of absolutely all telling.

    Telling is fine, especially if you use vibrant words that evoke emotional responses. When you use emotional words, the "telling" sentence doesn't distance the reader from the character as much as it would with blander, more vague words.

    Camy

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