Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Show Don't Tell!
So, show me what that means


By P.J. Parrish

How many times have we all heard this: SHOW DON'T TELL!

I put it all in nice bright letters because those three words are so commonplace in writing workshops that shoot, we might as well put them in neon, right? Ask a writing coach or an editor what the cardinal sin of bad writing is and "telling" is right up there with procrastination. We really get our panties in a wad about it. But let's stop and take a deep breath here

((((Breathe in pink, breathe out blue...)))

and figure out what SHOW DON'T TELL really means.

Okay, let's start with a definition because it's always good to start with specifics.

Show don't tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

(((((ZZZzzzzzzz))))

And that, my friends, is me telling you what "show don't tell" is. And now, I'm going to try to show you.

But first, a caveat: Not all telling is bad. Sometimes, you have to tell things in your story. Not every thing that happens in your story is worthy of showing. Some things are best handled in narration:

Boring but necessary physical action
You don’t waste words on stuff like this : “He stared at the phone then slowly depressed the little red button to disconnect the line.” You write: "He hung up."  Also, you don't write: “He slowly swung his bare feet to the cold wood floor, scratched himself, yawned, and got out of the bed in an existential funk.” You write: “He got up.”

Boring dialogue
You don’t write:
       “Hello Joe,” he said. “Long time no see.”
       “Yeah, it's been about two months.”
       “That long, eh?”
       “Yeah.”
       “What you been up to?” he asked.
       “I was carving fishing lures, but the then the wife left me and I found myself living alone and eating and drinking too much.” 

Write (tell) this: He hadn't seen Joe for two months.  He looked terrible, like he had been living on Big Macs and Jim Beam. Talk around the station was that his wife had left him and he was going crazy sitting at home making fish lures. 

Pure description

This is where you the writer can step in and shine because it is you telling us (in your unique voice), what things look, smell and sound like. But usually, description works best and is more involving for the reader if you can filter it through a character's point of view. Here are two examples. You tell me which one works best.

Third person POV detached
She looked at Louis. He was twenty-nine and bi-racial, his father white, his mother black. She knew he had grown up as a foster child and had made peace with his mother toward the end of her life, but that his father had deserted him.

Third person POV intimate 
She turned toward him. God, she loved his face. Forceful, high-cheekboned, black brows sitting like emphatic accents over his gray eyes, the left one arching into an exclamation mark when he was amused or surprised. And his skin, smooth and buff-colored, a gift from his beautiful black mother whose picture he had once shown her and his white father, whom he had never mentioned.
    

Backstory

There are a lot of great posts in our TKZ archives about how to deal with backstory. But in terms of "show don't tell" we have to concede that backstory is essentially telling. And that's okay. Just do it well, be evocative and be brief because your reader wants to get back to the forward plot momentum. Example:
        The first image that usually came to him when other people started talking about their childhood was a house. Other things came, too. Faces, smells, emotions, mental snapshots of events. But those kinds of memories were fluid, changing for good or bad, depending on how, and when, you chose to look back on them.
But a house was different. It was solid and unchanging, and it allowed people to say “I existed here. My memories are real.”
His image of home had always been a wood frame shack in Mississippi. It was an uncomfortable picture, but one he had held onto for a long time, convinced it symbolized some kind of truth in his life about who he was, or what he should be.
Notice that although this is TELLING, the reader is emotionally involved with the narrating character. And it is short. The very next sentence takes us right back to the present plot.

Okay, so show me already!

Now I'm going to try to show you what I mean by all this with some before and after samples from a workshop I teach on this subject. Number 1 is an excerpt where the setup is a cop standing over a dead body in bayou country.

        Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide-and-seek behind dark clouds. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Impending rain scented the air. Spanish moss fluttered in a sudden breeze that carried with it the cloying acridness of the swampy bayou.
        And at his feet in the vermin-ridden humus lay a young woman. A woman who, until a day or two ago, had hoped, planned, and dreamed. Maybe even loved.
        Now she lay dead. Violently wrestled from life before her time. And it was his job to find her killer.
        He started when, with a flap of wings, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him. As the regal bird disappeared from sight, Kramer couldn’t help but wonder if maybe it was his Jane Doe’s soul wafting to the Land of the Dead. The way the dove in Ulysses had carried Euripides’ soul.
        Despite the day’s heat, a chill seeped through him. Instinctively and unselfconsciously, Kramer crossed himself and wished her soul Godspeed.

Here's a rewrite of the same scene:

       Shadows closed around him as the sun played hide and seek behind dark clouds. Distant rain scented the still air and Spanish moss hung like wet netting on the giant oaks. The cloying acridness of the bayou was everywhere.
      Kramer wiped the sweat from his brow and  looked down at the dead woman and drew a shallow breath .
      She was the third young woman this year who had been left to rot in the muddy swamps of Louisiana.
      With a sudden rustle of leaves, a snowy egret soared into the air twenty feet in front of him.  Against the slanting sun it appeared little more than a ghostly white blur but still he watched it, oddly comforted by its graceful flight up toward the clouds.
     Then, with a small sigh, he looked back at the woman, closed his burning eyes and crossed himself.
     “God’s speed, ma cherie,” he whispered. “God’s speed.”
Why does the second one work better? Why does it hit our emotions harder? Because the writer got out of the way and let the character's actions and words move the story along.

Here's example 2. This is the opening of chapter 1 and the setup is a woman overseeing a parade at Disney World. It's long but it's worth analyzing.

        Dorothy Gale got it wrong. Even as a kid, I didn’t understand why she was so hell-bent to hustle herself out of Oz to return to Kansas. Was she crazy? I ached to leave ordinary behind and devoured every magical Frank Baum book in the library. When I was nine, I vowed I’d find the Emerald City one day and I did. The Wizard—or rather Orlando’s theme park industry—set a shiny, incredible Land of Oz at the end of my personal yellow brick road.
Ten years ago, with a fresh college diploma—Go Terps—I’d found my niche and myself when I snagged my first job at Oz. Work felt like play in my fairytale world. And my disappointed parents stopped blaming themselves for those library trips when Oz promoted me to assistant department manager for process improvement. Tonight, we were rolling out a new parade, and for me, the excitement rivaled Christmas Eve.
Churning the humid Florida air, the dancing poppies whirled by in a swirl of red, plum, and purple, so far a flawless debut. Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch. The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
“Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare. 
Here's how I would handle it.

      The red and pink poppies danced in the humid Florida air.  The lilting music gave way to the recorded yipping of hundreds of puppies, and forty employees pranced by in shaggy-doggy costumes. Toto’s enormous basket-shaped float reached the corner, and excited children squealed, adding a thousand decibels to the noise.
      Across the Yellow Brick Road, my boss Benjamin flashed me a rare smile and gestured to his stopwatch.  So far, it was a flawless debut. I pressed my clipboard to my chest and smiled.
       God, how I loved it here.
       My own fairy tale world.
       My own private  Oz.
       “Slower, Toto,” I murmured into my mouthpiece. “Turn on three.” I counted and the basket’s driver, hidden deep inside the float, turned with inches to spare.
        My own parade – every day.
        Dorothy got it wrong. Even as a kid, I never understood why she was so hell-bent to get out of Kansas. 
I think the writer got into the scene way too early and it's way too much exposition "telling" backstory so early in the book. And I think you always save your best line for last. In this case, it was "Dorothy got it wrong."  The writer opened with it and as such, it's not not bad. But I think it works better AFTER we know we're at Disney World. Plus, I like the technique of ending a scene with your best line because it works as an emphasis of the point you are trying to make with your scene. And every scene does have a point, right?

Here's one more for you to chew on. The set up is an unidentified person creeping through a house after already finding one dead body. We do not know who this is, what gender, or why he/she is there.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She, too, was dead.  From the marks on her neck, my guess was someone had strangled her.  As I completed my trip around the downstairs, I heard a noise from the front of the house, then a call of, "Police.  Anyone here?"  I took a deep breath and started toward the front room.
The cops met me in the hall with the obligatory order to drop my weapon and assume the position against the wall.  I complied and a young patrolman named Johnson explored areas I preferred not touched by a stranger.  However, I understood.  I'd have done the same if I had found anyone during my search, and I wouldn't have concerned myself about his or her privacy.
Once he finished, I showed my PI credentials. 
In the rewrite, I converted the "tellling" into "showing," mainly by handling things in dialogue.

         In a large pantry off the kitchen, I found the maid.  She was face down on the marbled floor, arms splayed, feet part, still dressed in her baby blue cotton uniform. I knelt  and when I moved her thick pony tail, I saw a tattered clothesline wrapped tight around her neck. She had no pulse. It hit me that I met her three times on previous visits and yet I could not remember her name.
      “Police! Anyone here?”
      I turned toward the echo of voices, toward the long cavernous hallway that led to the living room. Before I could take a step, I felt a jab of steel against my temple and someone’s hot breath in my ear.
       “Against the wall, lady.”
       “But —”
       “Shut up,” the cop said as he patted around my ass for a weapon. He found my gun, ripped it from its holster and roughly  turned me around.  I didn’t know the officer in front of me but I saw Sgt. Randy Rawls standing in the doorway, trying not too hard to stifle his snicker.
       “She’s okay, Jim,” he said. “Her name is Jenny Smith. She’s a local P.I.”

One more example but it's one of my favorites. The setup is a TV anchorwoman looking forward to meeting her boyfriend after work. I like it because the writer was so close to getting it right. But he needed to focus in on what I call special details and actions that show (ie illuminate) character.

     Tonight, however, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake.
     Jacob “Jake” Teinman employed a wicked, take-no-prisoners wit.  She found his sense of humor engaging, and delighted when he would elevate one eyebrow while keeping the other straight alerting his target to an oncoming barb.  Corrie truly liked Jake, a lot, but experience taught hard lessons and she had qualms about the two of them as a couple.
      They were awfully different — she: a public persona, trim, career driven, self-centered, frenetic and Irish Catholic; he: private, stocky, successful with a controlled confidence that drove her nuts, and Jewish.  At least that’s how she pictured the two of them.  She wondered if Jake’s version would agree.
      She’d noted they’d been dating exactly one year and he had made reservations at “The 95th” just six blocks from the WWCC studios.  It was sweet of Jake since he knew it was one of her favorite places.
Notice how the rewrite below works better because the same info is conveyed through tighter action and dialogue rather than the writer telling us what is happening.
      Tonight, Corrie was looking forward to dinner with Jake. And as she watched him come in the restaurant door, she smiled. It used to annoy her when people said how different they were. But it was true.
     Jake...
     Stocky. Dark. Jewish. Coming toward her with that confident swagger.
     And her...
     Tall. Blonde. Irish-Catholic. Sitting here wondering if he'd show up.
     He kissed her on the cheek and sat down.
     “You remembered,” she said.
      He frowned. “Remembered what?”
      “That this is my favorite restaurant.”
     He glanced around before the puppy-dog brown eyes came back to hers. “Sure, babe,” he said. “I remember.”
So what do we get from all this? The point I am trying to make here is that whenever you can, filter the story through the consciousness of your character(s). Don't waste words on dumb physical stuff. Be evocative and fresh in your description. And when it comes to backstory narrative, don't dwell in the past too long.

Okay, that was telling. Let me show you one more time, this time in an action scene (where you should always show not tell).

TELLING DRAMATIC ACTION
As he was walking slowly down the hotel corridor, someone hit him on the back of the head and pushed him forward. He felt the world go black. His body flailed, hitting the plate glass window and shattering it. The glittering shards caught the throbbing glow of red neon as they fell, like the tails of fading fireworks.
He fell to his knees and looked up into the chiseled face of his attacker. 

SHOWING DRAMATIC ACTION
      He walked with his head bent, scanning the front page of the New York Post. The hallway was dim, the slow blink of the red neon from the lone window lighting his way. 
      The blow came out of nowhere. So quick, so hard, blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. He stumbled forward, his head hitting the window. 
       An explosion of sound and glass. A rush of cold air. A flood of warm blood.
       He dropped to his knees and looked up.
       The face above him pulsed red. Then it was gone.

What's the main problem with the first one? The "telling" is slow-paced and un-viscereal. And if the guy just went through a plate glass window he probably can't see the glass falling and it sure as heck wouldn't register in his senses as "glittering shards" and "fading fireworks." In the second version, the POV is fixed and every detail that IS possible is filtered through the man's senses.

In summary, here are the pitfalls of TELLING

  1. Narrating the physical movements without being in character’s head.
  2. Use of too many 'ly' words in action or in dialog (i.e. She said impatiently, walked slowly, yelled angrily.) 
  3. Use of stock descriptions, purple prose or lengthy descriptions of places (and people) especially those that have no bearing on the plot.  
  4. Too many adjectives and cliches.
  5. Omniscient POV (distancing, describing from an all-seeing POV) The man getting hit on the head cannot see the glass as it falls six stories to the ground.)

Here are the strengths of SHOWING
  1. Action that uses the senses, stays within the character's consciousness and uses words and phrases that reinforce the mood of the scene.
  2. Strong verbs.  (Walked vs Jogged, Ran vs Raced, Shut the door vs Slammed the door.)
  3. Original images and vivid descriptions that are filtered through the character's senses in the present.
  4. One compelling adjective vs. a string of mediocre ones.
  5. Keep POV firmly in character's head. (Establishes sympathy and connects emotionally.)
As usual, I have flapped my lips and overstayed my welcome. It is 7:30 p.m. There is pizza and a glass of pinot with my name on it out there and a chapter 12 that needs to be finished.  Don't tell me to stop. Someone needs to show me the way to go home. 


24 comments:

  1. The Show Don't Tell concept seems to be one of the most confusing "rules" to beginning writers. I wish they could all read your blog today, and reread it tomorrow. Great job, Kris.

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  2. Ditto, what Joe said. Great real examples here. Now if only there was a Scratch & Sniff app for the pizza & wine.

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  3. I have a "tell" tic that trips me up every damn time. Even in 1st POV, I tend to say, "I felt the raindrop hit my cheek," rather than "The first raindrop was cool on my cheek." Other than that, sometime you just have to get the character out of bed and out the door.

    When I inherited my nano-press, I also inherited a self-pubbed serial novel that had been running, chapter at a time, for a couple of years. It is dreadful, but I promised to complete it.

    It will digress off into 2-3 page backstory rambles telling me about a character. It pains me to type it every month, but I promised.

    Terri

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    1. I haven't done much first person, Terri, but when I tried it, I had the same problem...lots of "felts" "had the feeling that..." It requires a certain brain shift to write well in first, I think.

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  4. Wow. Just wow. You really told them. Or showed them. One hell of a blog, Kris.

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  5. This article is pure gold, Kris! You really know how to teach writing craft - clear explanations and great examples, written in an entertaining style! Perfect. As Elaine said, "Wow. Just wow." I'll be sending all my clients here to read this!

    And may I quote your excellent definition, with full credit to you of course, in my next book? I love this:

    "Show don't tell means writing in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description. The idea is not to be heavy-handed, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead."

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  6. Jodie: You can quote it but it's not mine and I don't remember where it comes from, alas.

    Going to critique group folks...will check in soon!

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  7. PJ, first time I've commented here. Feel just like I just went to the best conference in the world on a favorite subject. Bet I can write a long e mail message than you.

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    1. Glad to have you speak up RG! Thanks for the kind words.

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  8. Great post!

    I have a friend who runs a great blog called The Other Side of the Story who thinks almost all issues of a book can be solved through POV. In each of your examples, not only did we feel more though being shown what was happening, the pacing was better, and the writing itself was less cumbersome.

    The biggest struggle I have with Show vs. Tell is figuring out if that extra bit of information is cool/interesting enough to justify it's existence.

    A lot of your first examples were over written, with the powerful sentences buried among other lesser details, but occasionally there was a detail that was considered telling, but I still loved anyway. In your first example, the "Show" version still hinted at the egret being the girl's soul, in an incredibly powerful way. But I also liked how the first version specifically mentioned the land of the dead and the dove that carried Euripides.

    It's a judgement call that can be hard to make. God bless beta readers and editors. :D

    Thanks for such a thorough look the subject!

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    1. Good points, Elizabeth. Yes, sometimes it can be a matter of style. Mine is more spare than a lot of folks but I am a strong believe in less is more. And yes, it is difficult to tell where the line is between evocative and underwritten.

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    2. As I grow in my craft, I find myself favoring more spare prose and lots of subtext over going all out with the description, too. I tell myself it's because I'm getting better. :D

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  9. Excellent examples. Showing the story gives immediacy to a tale and is so much better at grabbing the reader's interest. Being a Disney fan, I liked your theme park Oz passage.

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  10. His smile grew wider as he read on. The examples she gave seemed, well, OK. Then the rewrites -- it was like those pictures where something was right in front of you but you couldn't see it. Then after you spotted it, it seemed laughingly obvious.

    "Wow," he said, nodding over and over. "Wow."

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    1. Frank: When I first started teaching writing (decades ago in a library course), I struggled to get points across because technique is difficult to articulate sometimes. It hit me that before and after examples SHOW so much more than I could ever TELL.

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  11. We had an assignment in one of my writing classes and the instructor asked that we use one or two paragraphs to tell about something. When she then asked us to show those same two paragraphs using our 5 senses, the two paragraphs turned into two pages! :)

    But, I have to say, the transformation was amazing!

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    1. That's an interesting assignment. Must remember that, Diane. Good muscle-stretcher.

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  12. This is by far the best post I've read about "show don't tell". You are a great teacher. However, it's not as easy as this in 1st POV, which is what I usually write in. Sometimes you just need to say, "I felt a sheen of sweat on my face." because obviously the POV character can't see it. Sure, you can say, "I wiped the sweat from my forehead." But how many times can they actually do that? There's a point where it sounds unnatural and awkward.

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    1. Sue, I have often said that I think first person POV is more difficult, mainly because your options are so limited that it is almost impossible to avoid the occasional clumsy construction or even cliche. First POVers have to work harder to build a believable sensory universe EVEN THOUGH they are literally living in the protag's head. I wrote several short stories before I wrote a full length First POV novel and I found it exhausting. But exciting, in an odd way, to be that close to my character. I wrote a second thriller in first AND third POVs....that was a real challenge.

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  15. I am in the midst of cutting out all the 'show' I can from my WIP. My main reaction as I go through edit #3 is "Wow...I wrote that like that?"

    facepalm, sigh, "I hope no one else saw this."

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  16. Basil, when Kelly and I went back and edited our first Louis book, "Dark of the Moon" for eBook publication, we had the same reaction. We are still working on it. We have cut 80 pages so far. And this book got published by reputable house.

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  17. This is one of the cleanest, most sensible explanations of the term I've heard. Thank you for making it practical.

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