One of the biggest problems I see in writing is Show vs. Tell. And I bleat on about it like a goat on crack whenever I’m at conferences – to the point where I can see writers quiver in their boots. I always think I’ve been clear on what I mean by Show vs. Tell, but there is still a lot of confusion about it – namely being able to distinguish when you’re committing this egregious sin against literature.
I realize writing can be intimidating to the new writer, and that’s why I usually suggest that writers just belt it out there. Get that first draft down on cyber paper. Don’t worry anything other than you telling yourself the story. If you want to say “Ralph was fat,” then write it. Same goes for the “He was kind.” That’s right, just barf it all out.
Then begin your second draft. I can hear the dun-da-dun-dun music playing already.
For the most part, the “he was fat” and “he was kind” statements are innocuous enough. But a steady diet of it can make a reader want to stab themselves in the eye with a rusty fork, especially if you’re talking about a main character. It’s simplistic, fourth grade writing. And worse, it doesn’t have any artistic depth or dimension.
How was Ralph fat?
How was he kind?
Come on, you guys, we’re word wizards, so knock this stuff out of the park. Sure, we all know what fat looks like and we do know some kind people – none in our office, however. Well, except Sweetcheeks, and they don’t come any better.
In fact, when I come downstairs in the morning – after prying my eyes open and stumbling about – Sweetcheeks has eaten and read the paper, and is ready to hit the office. But he always waits until I come downstairs so he can have my coffee for me. But it doesn’t stop there; he fires up my laptop and greets me with a pair of very inviting, open arms and adorable smile. Icing on the cake.
I asked him a while back why he waits for me before going upstairs to the office. He smiled and gave me an offhand shrug. “It’s no big deal to make some coffee and turn on a laptop,” – even if I leave it in the TV room and he has to move it – “Besides, seeing your face first thing in the morning is a nice way to start my day.”
All together now…awwwwww.
Now, what I just did – besides embarrassing him into a coma – is SHOW that Sweetcheeks is kind. I’ve offered the reader true insight and understanding into Sweetcheeks’ character. This has far more impact than had I simply written Sweetcheeks is kind. This makes him three dimensional. Real.
Sure, I have a higher word count, but it’s worth it because it fully develops the character. That’s what writing is, after all – telling a compelling story that maintains readers’ interest.
But it’s not all about swelling your word count, it’s about helping your readers see what’s inside your head. I remember being in Costco and helping myself to one of the gazillion samples they put out on Saturdays. One day, the fare was cupcakes. Yummo! I put that tasty bundle of chocolate and cream into my mouth and let it dance around my tongue. A religious experience…which was crudely interrupted by a stinging voice. “Do you have any idea how many calories are in that?”
I looked over at my interloper and noticed his shirt stretched across his midsection to the point where I swore I could hear the buttons begging for mercy. Lots of comments flashed across my synapses, but I opted for my fallback position – humor. “Don’t you know that samples contain no calories? It’s like food that’s sitting on top of the fridg. No calories in those, either.”
Fat Bastard’s face lit up like the Fourth of July, and he hustled over and grabbed five samples.
Now, I could have just said that some rude, fat guy tried to come in between me and dietary Nirvana, but I wanted to give a better visual. This is the stuff that makes for smoother, deeper reading. If you fill your narrative with “tells” like “he was fat/kind/rude/whatever,” then you’re forcing your reader to fill in the blanks. The downside is that they’ll never really get a full picture of what you see in your head. And it’s our job to transfer what’s in our heads to cyber paper.
Sadly, this aberration doesn’t take place just in writing. It happens in query letters. All. The. Time. I get scads of queries that tell me their stories are funny, engaging, thoughtful, fast-paced, unique…pick your own adjective…yet they never SHOW me these qualities. I’m not gonna take your word for it. Consider this query:
Fifteen-year-old Dana lives with her strict, emotionally distant parents. She is sent away after her parents discover she has a boyfriend – in order to keep her mind on her studies and her “honor.” The plan backfires when Dana accidentally uncovers her past, a fateful decision Dana’s mother and grandmother made years ago that now alters her life forever. Devastated by their betrayal, Dana begins an emotional journey into an intricate world, steeped in traditions, of people born with bad intentions and the hardships inflicted on them. As she travels from her home to Muncie, Indiana, contemplating her future, she wonders: when life takes an unexpected turn, bursting open a long-buried secret, should you surrender in defeat or should you search for a sense of purpose?
My problem with this is that it doesn’t show me anything. I have no affinity for this Dana character, nor do I have any alignment with what she’s going through. What long-buried secret? What unexpected turn? She withheld the very elements that are the story’s raison d’etre. So what comes out is description…telling. “This is what happened, that is what happened.” Big deal.
Who is the character? We need to care about her, and that comes from SHOW. The details – the conflict – also has to be shown so we can appreciate the guts of the story.
Lastly, the rhetorical questions she asks at the end imply this is the end-result of her book – which leaves me wondering what is filling the first three fourths of the book.
This is an instant rejection for me because I don’t feel anything for this story or the character. I don’t have any real clue as to the plot, so absent all these elements, I have no choice but to bid this adieu. That is the power of show vs. tell.
Can you go overboard? Oh yah. A manuscript I critted last year was filled to the gills with show – to the point where I needed an overflow bucket. You don’t need to show every little thing. If your character is crossing a room, you don’t need to show how she did it, what she saw, what she thought. Same goes for describing a chocolate cake. You don’t need to show the texture of the icing, the fluffy cake, or the filling.
Stories that are filled with constant show are top-heavy things that crumble with their own weight.
Which leads me to Balance.
The biggest problem I see is authors who don’t know when and how to use show. There are plenty of times when a character can simply cross a room without it taking up five paragraphs. Same for the piece of cake. The trick is to utilize show at the right time…when the scene allows for it.
If your character has been on a desert island for three weeks and all she’s been dreaming about is a piece of chocolate cake, then this is when you’d pull out your heavy weaponry and lock and load the Show rifle. If you don’t, that scene is going to stink. But if it’s simply something your character ate after dinner, then it’s no big deal, and you don’t need a huge rundown.
Pretend everyone is blind
What I’m really getting at is how effectively you describe something – be it a person, a mangy beagle, a cup of tea, the kindness of a man, or the plot of your book. I’ve used the example of the blind person. If you pretend that your readers are blind – which, in a sense, they are – this forces you to describe things in better detail so that they can SEE what you see.
How is your character exciting?
How is the secret devastating?
How is it a good thing when two characters meeting up after a painful breakup?
You telling us won’t work. We gotta see it the way you see it.
Do you find that you have problems with Show in your writing or query letters? How do you decide when to show and when to tell?