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Monday, June 22, 2009

Show versus Tell, examples

Many of you have seen the “Show, don’t tell” rule in writing articles and books. Basically, you want to “show” the reader the character’s emotions, not “tell” the reader the emotions the character is feeling. “Telling” tends to be distant point of view, which distances the reader from the character’s emotions.

“Showing” involves your reader in what’s going on. It’s active and also concrete or tangible. The descriptions are usually more vivid and evoke emotion in the reader. Rather than telling information, show it through the character’s emotional reactions to something that happens in real time.

Telling versus showing is a common mistake for writers because, at heart, we’re all storytellers, and that’s how storytellers “tell” a story.

However, for writing fiction, you’d rather “show” the reader the action and make the reader an active participant in the events playing out.

Put it this way: Like the audience of a play, the reader sees the characters acting and moving about on stage. There’s very little scenes where an actor will stop, turn to the audience, and explain what’s going on—this is what telling is like. Instead, the audience sees what’s going on for themselves by watching the scene.

Showing rather than telling is most important in the first few chapters. You want the story and action to move along swiftly to hook your reader into the story, and telling halts everything and risks losing your reader.

So while you can have more telling in later sections of the book, you should strive to keep telling to a minimum at least in the first 3 chapters. Try to find more creative ways to show the information rather than stopping the action to turn to the reader and “tell” him all this information about the story world or the characters—utilize dialogue, actions or movement.

Here are a few articles to explain basic show versus tell:

http://www.teresciaharvey.com/show.html
http://www.writing-world.com/dawn/dawn02.shtml
http://www.sfwriter.com/ow04.htm
http://www.barbaradawsonsmith.com/showdon'ttell.htm
http://www.shirleyjump.com/article/item-852ed1f8-ae59-4da7-a6e8-978a968f5211.aspx

Some books on show versus tell:

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell (chapter 8)
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (chapter 11)
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers 2nd edition by Renni Browne and Dave King (chapter 1)

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 starting 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.

Update (6/23/09): It seems people are taking these examples as hard rules for when to show and when to tell. This is not the case--please do not take these examples as such. They're simply examples of telling since many writers have told me they have a hard time recognizing telling when they see it in a manuscript, whether their own or someone else's.

You cannot eliminate ALL telling in a manuscript. It's impossible. But too much telling will bog down your reading pace.

I have had editors tell me that it's better to have too little telling in a manuscript and then have your editor tell you where to insert more telling. On the other hand, a manuscript with too much telling will sometimes give the editor an excuse to reject the manuscript.

Ultimately, it's up to you as the writer since it's YOUR manuscript. Utilize whatever is best for your writing voice, the rhythm and pacing you're aiming for, or the atmosphere you're trying to obtain.

On Monday, I will be posting an article that compiles my blog posts on examples of when to tell instead of show, so stay tuned!
Click here for my article on examples of when to tell


Show versus Tell, example one


She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. She tended to be a little obsessive-compulsive, putting things in order, cleaning things up as soon as the mess happened. If anything was even a little out of place, she had to straighten it or she couldn’t concentrate. She used her fidgeting now to calm herself.


Everything in italics is “telling.” Rather than “telling” the reader about her personality, it would be more vivid to “show” it to them through her actions and thoughts. For example:


She had almost been kil—no, she had to stop thinking about it. Her hands shook as she cleaned up the spilled juice from the counter. Why was she doing this? Why couldn’t she stop herself? Her sugar canister had been knocked askew by half an inch. She looked away, but an itching grew in her hand until she finally reached out to realign it with the other two canisters on the counter. She also straightened the potted violet by the sink, the coffeemaker in its corner, and the container of cooking utensils by the stove. She actually felt calmer now.


In the second example, the reader is drawn into her point of view to feel her agitation, to experience her compulsive acts of orderliness, and to see her fidgeting calm herself.

Show versus Tell, example two


She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.


The second sentence is “telling” the reader about the character. This information is the kind of thing that could probably be more actively “shown” in dialogue. For example:

(This conversation might be something that comes later in the story)

He took her hand. “Why don’t you come work for me at the high school?”


She pulled her hand away. “Nuh-uh. I already did that.”


“Huh?”


“I was secretary at the high school three years ago. Now I’m at the intermediate school.”


“So I’m three years too late.”


His flirtatious tone both thrilled and annoyed her. “Who’s to say I’d have stayed if you’d been Principal?”


Exceptions:

The question to ask is: Does the reader need to know she’d been secretary at the high school three years ago right at this moment in the story? Does the reader need to know she’s secretary for the intermediate school right at this moment in the story? If they don’t, then save it for later when the information is vital to the current action.

For example, say the story goes:


She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.


If she’d still been there, she’d be one of the dead bodies on the lawn, just another victim of the bombing. The thought sent a spasm through her as if her innards were trying to wiggle out of her skin.


In this example, then yes, the reader needed to know she’d been the high school secretary because the scene affects her emotionally, thinking she could have been one of the bombing victims.

However, if the story goes on to talk about something else, then the second sentence in the example—talking about being secretary at the high school three years ago—is not only “telling” the reader about the character, it’s extraneous information. Delete it and save it for later.

Show versus Tell, example three


”How dare you use wire hangers?!” Mama threw one at her, and the edge scratched her arm. She flinched.


She didn’t cry as Mama yelled at her. She had learned that tears only made her scream louder.


The italicized sentence is “telling” the reader about her past experience. (Actually, the “as Mama yelled at her” is also “telling” and extraneous because you “show” Mama yelling in the previous paragraph.) There’s a more active and emotional way to “show” this. For example:


”How dare you use wire hangers?!” Mama threw one at her, and the edge scratched her arm. She flinched.


She mustn’t cry. She mustn’t. She screwed her eyes shut, but a tear squeezed out and ran down the side of her nose. Oh, no. Her stomach heaved as the warm wet tickled the end of her nose.


Mama must have seen the tear, because the volume rose to screeching that stung Clara’s ears. “Crying is for sissies!”


Show versus Tell, example four


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.

Show versus Tell, example five


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.

Show versus Tell, example six


Jeannie looked Amy in the eyes. “So, tell me what your Mama told you.”


Just like Jeannie to be straight to the point. She’d always been that way, even in grade school. Sometimes her directness was a bit tactless and got her in trouble. Amy was so unlike Jeannie—tender-hearted to the point of not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings.


The entire second paragraph is telling. What information in that paragraph does the reader absolutely need to know for the current scene?

Also, the first sentence in the paragraph is extraneous—you already show her directness by her line of dialogue.

Here’s a better example.


Jeannie looked Amy in the eyes. “So, tell me what your Mama told you.”


Amy found the violet pattern on the china cup absolutely fascinating. Why did Jeannie always have to just jump straight into it?


“So?”


Amy spoke to the cluster of violets. “I’m too drained. I don’t want to talk about it.”


“But I want to know.”


Amy raised her eyes to glare at Jeannie. “Show some tact for once, will you?”


The information about Jeannie being direct is “shown” by an emotional reaction to it—her unhappy thoughts wondering why Jeannie had to be that way. Also, Jeannie’s tendency for lack of tact is “shown” with Amy’s angry line of dialogue.

Show versus Tell, example seven


Amy’s eyes were the size of her forgotten hard-boiled egg. “That’s amazing!”


So amazing that it had ruined Jeannie’s peaceful breakfast. She had a half-brother in New Orleans that she’d never even known existed before. He had written and wanted to meet her, now that their feuding parents were both gone.


The second paragraph is “telling.” Granted, it’s short—which might be a good enough reason to keep it as is—but there’s also a more vibrant way of “showing” this with dialogue.


Amy’s eyes were the size of her forgotten hard-boiled egg. “That’s amazing!”


“Amazing enough to ruin my breakfast.” Jeannie toyed with her cold toast.


“What are you talking about? I always wanted a brother—”


“Half-brother.”


“Whatever, half-brother. My point is, now you have one without having the annoyance of growing up with him.” Amy winked.


Jeannie pulled his letter close to her again to look at it. “I wonder what it was like, growing up in New Orleans.”


“What I wonder is why he wants to meet now, why he felt he had to wait until both your feuding parents were gone. After all, you’re both adults.”


All the information in the “telling” paragraph is now “shown” in the dialogue, which is more interesting for the reader and doesn’t pull her out of the story world with a paragraph of “telling” narrative.

Show versus Tell, example eight


She admired the rows of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes, her only extravagance.


The italicized phrase is “telling.”

Now before you start screaming that it’s short (after all, it’s only three words), think about it—if you eliminate as much “telling” from your manuscript as possible, the vibrancy of the writing as a whole goes up a notch.

Instead of “telling” the reader about how Ferragamo shoes are her only extravagance at that point, save it for when it’s vital to the current action. For example:


She slowed as she passed the Neimann Marcus shoe section. Oh, that black leather one …


No, she shouldn’t—she’d bought a pair of Ferragamo’s only two weeks ago. She had twenty-one pairs in her closet already.


But she’d just gotten paid. And she could honestly say it was her only extravagance.


In the example, the information is part of her thought process as she justifies buying a new pair of shoes rather than tacked on as a section of “telling” in the narrative.

However, because the section of “telling” is only three words long, you could leave it in, especially if the information is vital for the reader to know for the current scene. It’s up to you.

Show versus Tell, example nine


She arrived at her parents’ home, which always reminded her of a gingerbread house.


The italicized phrase is “telling” the reader what the house looks like. Instead, why not “show” the reader her emotional reaction to the house while you describe it? It would make a more vibrant way of “showing” the same information. For example:


She arrived at her parents’ house, a great big gingerbread confection that made her want to gag at the sweetness.


or


She arrived at her parents’ house, a great big gingerbread confection that lifted her spirits as if she were on a sugar rush.


In the examples, the character’s emotions are incorporated in the description so that the “telling” about the house isn’t just tacked onto the narrative, but a vital part of her impressions of the scene. It’s just a tactic to convey the information in a more interesting way to the reader.

Show versus Tell, example ten


She rushed out of the elevator and bumped Sherri’s arm. “Sorry,” she mumbled.


But Sherri made an exasperated sound. “Just sorry?”


Gloria paused. She was in a hurry, but she couldn’t afford to antagonize her, because Sherri would make her life miserable.


Gloria turned with a plastic smile. “I’m so sorry. Can I help you carry those files?”


The italicized sentence is “telling” the reader about antagonizing Sherri. Granted, it’s only a sentence, and because it’s short, you could keep it in and it wouldn’t be bad.

But even a sentence can “burp” the reader out of the reading flow because it’s a sentence of “telling” narrative. This is especially true if you have several sentences of telling, in different paragraphs, on the same page or in the same chapter.

There’s a more vibrant, emotional way to convey the information if you go deeper into Gloria’s point of view. For example:


She rushed out of the elevator and bumped Sherri’s arm. “Sorry,” she mumbled.


But Sherri made an exasperated sound. “Just sorry?”


Gloria paused. Was she already late? If she just blew past … No, she got a headache at the thought of Sherri’s sour face and insolent work habits if she didn’t appease her.


Gloria turned with a plastic smile. “I’m so sorry. Can I help you carry those files?”


In framing the information as Gloria’s clicking thought process, the information is more interesting to the reader.

Show versus Tell, example eleven


She chewed on her hair, an old habit of hers that she was trying to break.


The second half of that sentence is “telling” the reader about her old habit. There’s a more active way to “show” it by incorporating her emotions into it. For example:


She caught herself chewing her hair and dragged it out of her mouth. Nasty habit. Why couldn’t she break it?


In the example, I’ve delved deeper into her point of view and “shown” the same information in a more active, emotional way.

This might seem like a rather trivial example for “telling,” but think about if you changed all these instances throughout your manuscript. The small changes made would contribute to the whole of the writing, making it just a bit crisper and sharper.

Show versus Tell, example twelve


She wanted to call her sister to cry over the phone, but she shouldn’t. Tonight was Sherri’s birthday, and she knew Sherri’s husband was going to give her a diamond pendant as a present.


Here, you’re “telling” the reader about why she can’t call her sister, but sometimes a little mystery is good for the reader, to pique their interest and keep them reading.

Also, if you’re in the character’s deep point of view, she wouldn’t “tell” herself why she can’t call her sister, she’d already know and would only mention it in a way that would be cryptic for anyone not in the know. For example:


She could call Sherri, have a good cry … No. She’d ruin everything if she called Sherri tonight.


And just leave it at that. It creates an aura of mystery that makes the reader wonder why tonight is so special, plus you’re in deep point of view, which draws the reader into her dilemma. Later, you can reveal Sherri’s special birthday gift to explain why she couldn’t call and ruin her birthday.

Show versus Tell, example thirteen


Adelaide found the housekeeper, Mrs. Long, in the kitchen. Adelaide was able to relax around her because Mrs. Long knew she was the mistress’s niece, and she had assured Adelaide she wouldn’t tell a soul.


The italics is all telling.

There are two types of telling here:

(1) When you write the deep point of view of a character, she wouldn’t think to herself, “I’ll go find the housekeeper, Mrs. Long.” She’d either look for “the housekeeper” or look for “Mrs. Long.” The additional modifiers are purely for the reader’s info, which is telling.

This is an easy fix. Use “the housekeeper” and “Mrs. Long” in the same paragraph, to make it obvious to the reader that the housekeeper is Mrs. Long. Your reader can figure out things better than you think. You don’t need extra modifiers to make sure the reader knows some piece of information.

(2) The second sentence in italics is telling the reader information about Adelaide and Mrs. Long. It’s also recapping an event that happened earlier.

The essential aspects of the information can be more dynamically shown in dialogue instead:


Adelaide found the housekeeper in the kitchen. “Do you need help, Mrs. Long?”


The woman jumped, and a fountain of peas erupted from the colander. “Mercy, you scared me, Miss Adelaide.”


“Just Adelaide. No one else knows.” She playfully nudged Mrs. Long aside, picked up a pea pod, and began to shuck.


Mrs. Long turned back to grumble at her peas, “’Tain’t right for you to help me.”


“Maids are supposed to help the housekeeper.”


“Maids aren’t supposed to be nieces to the mistress.”


This dialogue is just more fun to read than a paragraph of narrative. It also shows the relationship between the two women with more color and vibrancy.

Show versus Tell, example fourteen

This example is from my own proposal. It’s an Inspirational romantic suspense.


(From Jorge's point of view)


Jorge explained, “My brother still visits some of his old friends to try to get them to come to church with him.”


“Oh.” Her eyes skittered away as she renewed her vigor in sweeping.


She had never been comfortable talking about her faith. They’d rarely talked about God when they were dating, but she had said she was a strong Christian.


The last paragraph is all telling. There’s a more dynamic and interesting way to show this information, plus you can use this as a way to deepen the point of view.

I decided to anchor the information in Jorge’s current thoughts and wonderings, which are all in real time. It turns the paragraph into a combination of backstory information about her faith and Jorge’s current thoughts in the scene.


Jorge explained, “My brother still visits some of his old friends to try to get them to come to church with him.”


“Oh.” Her eyes skittered away as she renewed her vigor in sweeping.


Strange, she seemed even more uncomfortable talking about her faith than a month ago. They’d rarely talked about God, but she’d never actually avoided the subject like this before. She had said she was a strong Christian—was her faith wavering in the face of all the recent problems?


The boldface phrases are all current, Jorge’s thoughts in real time. It shows the backstory information mixed with the immediate thoughts so that it: (a) is in deep point of view and (b) shows forward movement in the story (c) without pausing to “tell” the reader about the heroine’s faith struggles.

Note from Camy: If I post more examples of Showing Versus Telling, I'll add to this article so it'll be updated.

8 comments:

  1. It might also be a good idea to explain circumstances where telling is appropriate. There's a tendency among beginning writers to simply point at a book and go "He's TELLING!" like they'd caught the published writer in a crime and don't stop to ask if there's a reason for the telling.

    Many of the thrillers I've read do have more telling, often to explain technical information (i.e., forensics technology) that would be very tedious and time consuming to show, and likely interrupt the flow of the story.

    I'm noting this because I just ran across a writer a few days ago who had taken show to the extreme and showed EVERYTHING, even things that didn't need to be in the story. He'd gotten critiques on his story from multiple people who told him it was too much, so he was trying to understand where telling would help him.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Camy, I'll be watching.
    I think I can recognize some of these but not all.
    Your examples are very helpful, as always!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great examples! You really know how to break somethiing down and explain it well. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Garridon, I did actually run a series of blog posts on when it was better to tell rather than show, because you're right--sometimes showing everything, including TMI stuff, is too much. As I mentioned in the article above, some types of telling aren't bad, especially if they're short. I simply gave alternatives if the writer wanted to eliminate telling as much as possible.

    Thanks, Debra and Katie! I'm glad the article was helpful to you.
    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  5. I hate to say it, but when I read the example about mama and the hangers, I liked the telling one better. It felt like I was in the character's deep POV, and it was concise and left something to the imagination.

    When is it more appropriate to tell rather than show?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Kathleen, you can tell anytime you want--you're the author and it's your manuscript! Sometimes telling also fits better with your writer's voice or sounds better with the cadence of the language, depending on the rhythm you're aiming for. This article is simply to give examples of showing and telling since a lot of people mentioned to me that they can't really tell when they're telling. Ultimately, when you tell or show in a manuscript is entirely up to you.

    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  7. I added a disclaimer in the article above because I don't want people to think these are hard rules for when to show and when to tell.

    As mentioned in the article, they're simply EXAMPLES of telling so writers can see what telling is when they look at their manuscripts during revisions.

    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for being so gracious, Camy. I have a deep compulsion to follow the rules, and I'm learning when to follow and when to diverge. Your article was very helpful.
    : )

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