Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show vs. Tell: Tips for Telling the Difference

This is an ancient subject with regard to "good" writing. Opinions will always differ as to what constitutes good writing, with some readers wanting the stripped-down starkness of pure story speeding along to a conclusion, and others wanting rich scenery along the way. Show vs. Tell remains a bottomless pit of mystery to most, if not all, beginning writers. Critiques scream at them for passive writing and boring descriptions without ever really "showing" them how to get out of that trap.

So, Sue's tip for the day:

This is a Tell:
She sat down.
This is a Show:
She settled herself onto the faded brocade of a chair that looked entirely too fragile to take her weight, her frayed skirts settling around her with soft sighs of relief.
They both get the job done. The reader knows a woman sat down. But the first example unfairly relies upon the reader's imagination to conjure up a generic image of a female person sitting in a chair. What the chair looks like, we have no idea. What the woman looks like, we have no idea. The second example tells you the chair is an upholstered thing past its better days, and the woman is heavy enough to threaten the integrity of the poor chair.

How much nicer is that than stating baldly, "The fat woman sat down"?

As I was zooming along today drafting on Windrider, this nearly made it onto the page:
Ayesh was silent a moment.
Oh, ick. Not only a Tell, but passive to boot! (Passive writing most often involves the use of any form of the verb "to be". Shoot all instances of "was," "were," or "is" on sight whenever possible.)

Here is what this initial thought changed to pretty much as soon as I became aware it had hit the page:
Ayesh sat very still for a moment with silence gathering around him like thickening fog.
This is a bit prettier, yes? A bit more lyrical, evoking a mood as well as telling us that this character is having a moment of introspection.

Writers who claim they cannot stretch a story to the minimum 80,000 words of a novel either truly don't have enough plot...or aren't taking advantage of the beauty of the language to evoke clear pictures of the characters and their surroundings, or to draw an emotional response from the reader. If your writing is stuffed with passives and seems a bit utilitarian, you could be doing more Telling than Showing.

More on this subject in future blog posts, with more examples of how to cure it.

'Til then...

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