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Bob Nailor

Show Don't Tell

This is probably the biggest writer adage to exist. If a writer has never been told this in his or her career, then that person hasn't been writing very long.

We are constantly assailed with the concept of show, show, show. We can all weave a good tale. That's what a writer does - tells a tale. But a great writer shows the story as he weaves the words to reveal the tale.

The principle is hard to master for some. Exactly what is showing and what is telling?

This is simple exposition. Rover was an old family dog and walked slowly.

A case of descriptive exposition. Rover, the family pet, lumbered across the porch, his aged canine legs wavering with each step.

Both examples tell us the same information: (1) Rover was a dog. (2) He was old. and (3) He had trouble walking. But it is the manner in which the information is given to the reader that is important. The first example states the facts. The second example creates an image in our mind. I never stated the dog's breed but I'm willing to bet that most people visualized a dog with long, droopy ears, probably reminiscent of either a beagle or blood hound.

So how does one incorporate "show" into the story?

You can "tell" us: Upset, Mary Sue's mother called her to breakfast. OR you can "show" it with dialog: "Mary Sue Ellen!" her mother yelled. "Your breakfast is getting cold and you'd better well eat it before you head out to school."

Notice the difference? Telling us doesn't reveal very well that the mother is a little upset. With dialog, you can hear her mother's voice and probably remember incidents from your past that were very similar. Also, you've given the character emotion and mood, not to mention, upped your word count.

Again, use descriptive words that engage the senses, not just sight. Therefore "tell" is: He was tall and had blue eyes. He sat on the couch. OR you can show by describing: Standing above the rest of those in attendance, his blue eyes spotted the couch where he could lounge and not worry that everyone would be standing with their noses in his armpits. Once more, more words and a vivid image of being self-conscious of hygiene.

Question Everything:
As you write your scenes, query all aspects in your story to make sure that you've covered and/or revealed points needed. An example: They drove the car to the park and enjoyed the stroll to the lake's edge. It was late and they watched the last streaks of light. As they walked back to the car, they decided they should do this more often.

Questions: Who are "they" and where are they? Why are they at the park and lake? When did they walk back? Why did they decide to do this more often?

Revised Example: Barry picked up Nancy in his 57 Chevy and headed to the state park. "I thought we'd watch the sunset at the lake's edge," Barry said and opened the car's door for Nancy. "It will be a lovely walk through the woods," Nancy agreed. Barry spread the plaid blanket down and they sat, arm-in-arm, watching the last rays of the colorful sunset. "This is lovely," Nancy whispered. "We should head back before it gets too dark," Barry said. "The woods can get quite dark and I forgot a flashlight." Nancy smiled at Barry. "This was fun. We will have to do this again but be better prepared."

Some answers but as the writer, you can still question this and re-write it as:
Barry carefully closed the door of the 57 Chevy, making sure Nancy's dress didn't get caught then dashed around to the driver's side. "I thought we'd go to the park and watch the sunset tonight before we went to the theater." "How delightful," Nancy gushed. Barry parked the car and retrieved the plaid blanket from the backseat. "Better grab a flashlight," he said. They walked arm-in-arm through the woods to the lake. Nancy leaned on Barry's shoulder and they held hands as the last rays of sunset glowed in vivid reds and golds. Frogs, crickets and other insects began their night sounds. "We'd better get a hustle on if we want to make the movie," Barry said and helped Nancy to her feet. "This is wonderful. Next time I can make us some snacks and we can stay longer," Nancy offered. Barry grabbed the blanket and turned on the flashlight. "This will light our path back." He placed a protective arm over her shoulder and guided Nancy back to the car. The movie awaited them.

Again, even more questions could be asked and answered. Why did Barry decide to go to the lake - was he going to propose? What type of snacks was Nancy thinking of? What is the time period of the scene? 1960? 2010? Are they young? Old?

By showing, a writer has the chance to expand / expound on the story and make the scene come alive. How boring to tell us: They went to the lake and watched the sun set.

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Lisa Jey Davis
I just spent the last couple of months converting my very "telling" book into a "show" - thank you very much! HARD WORK to do after the fact. MUCH better to do it from the beginning! :)
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Elyse Salpeter
I sometimes fall into the tell don't show trap. I let my characters explain everything, thinking it's totally exciting and I know it's not. I have to constantly remember that spouting explanations isn't what is going to drive a story. Good post.
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James Prescott
Great post here Bob - very good point, and applies equally to non-fiction as fiction in many ways too!
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