by Sandy Tritt
The First Rule of Writing is Show, Don’t Tell. That sounds easy, but what, exactly, does show mean? It means we must act out our scenes using action and dialogue in such a way that our reader can visualize exactly where he is and who he’s with—all while keeping him on the edge of his seat. Let’s look at an example:
Carey ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store he met a girl and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her but she blew him off. Then he went home.
Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay—so this example is exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, especially in dialogue and action. Consider:
Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so Salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the “Big Man’’ or the regular?
A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.
“Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.
Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . .
So now you have the idea. We need details. We need to know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. It is especially important to act out emotions and emotionally-packed scenes. This is the writer’s opportunity to shine. Never tell us what a character is feeling. Show us. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our imaginary world.
Bad: John was angry.
Good: John’s eyes narrowed. He slammed his fist on the table.
We also find the “show, don’t tell” problem in less-apparent ways. For example, in description.
Bad: Mary was a pretty girl, with blue eyes and blond hair.
Good: Mary’s blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step.
Bad: Molly is a wonderful person.
Good: Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She’s the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone—man, woman or child—at anytime.
Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys:
Consummation of the soul. That’s what Sam called the gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense it begged to be satisfied, pleaded to be released, and he was helpless to resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own, titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded, everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.
Dialogue is another area where we have the opportunity to show or to tell. “I love you,” she crooned. “I love you, too,” he sputtered. And I cringe. First, using creative dialogue tags (crooned, sputtered) is telling, not showing. Let the power of your dialogue and the accompanying action show your readers the tone of voice and the emotion. Consider:
“I love you,” she said, her voice smooth as her fingers massaged his Rolex.
“Love you, too,” he said. His glassy eyes roved over her naked body, his mouth too wet and limp to properly form words.
You can’t tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won’t believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to act out, to let us feel.
But—does this mean we should act out absolutely everything? Uh-uh. Let’s face it—if we showed everything, our novels would run tens of thousands of pages—and readers would die of exhaustion. So what do we do? We must decide what information the reader needs. Just because we know everything about our characters and just because we spent weeks researching, it isn’t necessary to share everything we know with our reader. We must choose only the details we need to authenticate our story and omit everything else.
One of the most difficult and most crucial elements in story-telling is knowing when to give play-by-play action and when to back off and summarize. Play with this. If a scene doesn’t hold your interest, maybe it is better to summarize it in a sentence or two and go on to something more important. However, if it is a pivotal scene in the plot or critical to our understanding how our character reacts in a given situation, go for it. Give us action, give us dialogue, and let us experience and savor every single moment of it.
BONUS TIP: Never name an emotion. That’s a sure-fire giveaway that you’re telling and not showing.
© 2008 Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved.
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