Show and Tell

Everything I know about showing and not telling I learned from author, artist, and race-car driver, Maggie Stiefvater. (That's right, THE Jane-of-all-trades.) Incidentally, I also had the pleasure of attending a live event to promote her recent release, Dream Thieves. She was engaging, funny, and as great a story teller in person as she is on the page. Okay, that's not entirely true, I didn't learn EVERYTHING from  her, but a lot. (And she is AWESOME—she's got that vibe down in spades.) There were a few other instructors, articles, and people along the way, but with Maggie's work I keenly became aware of how a writer allows a reader to experience the action and scenes of a story.

To date, the instruction, "Show don't tell" has been the devil my most difficult writing challenge. I've repeatedly received the critiques:

 SHOW DON'T TELL (in caps because I saw it so frequently it was like being shouted at)
 Describe this...
 I want to see/feel/smell/taste what you mean!
xx Ad nauseum xx

So I delved deep into the search on Google. What does this vague directive mean? Do I care? (Asks the nonconformist/rebel in me.) What does showing not telling look like/feel like/smell like/taste like? Why can't I wrap my head around it? Should I forget about writing? Am I failure? Down the rabbit hole I went.

However, as I started saying above, I got my newly released copy of Dream Thieves and with the study of show don't tell in the forefront of my mind, I started, to, get, it. Understanding slowly unfolded in a turn of phrase here, a sentence there, and it turned into a paragraph until I was smacking my lips and eating it up. Maggie deliciously strings words together like glistening beads of honey (that I can taste, feel, can you hear honey?) and it just clicked (finally!) I'm by no means a show don't tell expert, but the concept finally crystalized.

If  you wandered here hoping for some examples of what this show-don't-tell hullabaloo means- you're in luck. Although there are countless blogs and writing websites out there with far better examples, I'll toss a few of my revised sentences from my work in progress.

Tell: My father didn’t appreciate the household makeover. 

Show: He sent me a photo of the apartment in Brooklyn restored to its drab state. I expected a copy of the credit card statement highlighted in red pen, but maybe it didn't come in the mail yet.


Tell: I'm still wet from my shower. 

Show: My wet hair slaps my back and wraps around my neck as I look down the adjacent hallway. 


Show: He freezes.

Tell: He moves robotically into the hall as if he’s afraid Cooper will disapprove of our alliance, but clearly more fearful of me.

Oh, and here's a good article about the subject from She Writes in case you want to read further sans my tangents. Another couple sound bites on the topic include:

Imagine writing from first person, (if not already doing so.) How does the character see the world? What sensory experience is that person having?

Actions speak louder than words. (Uh huh. Right-o!)

"Dramatize, do not simply state." (Not sure where that quote came from, but it's a keeper.) 

The thing I've found about SDT is it's a concept that you get from practice, from study, and less from simple rules like where commas go or writing in the passive vs. active voice. Either that or I'm just thick.

In general, always SHOW, describe, and give the passage life. However, there are times when a bit of telling is okay too, it can move things along so long as it's done in the same voice as the rest of the piece. You can hate me for saying that. But it's true. Telling can also work as a place holder while you're in drafting mode. You can go back later and create a fuller scene if you can't type fast enough to get your thoughts down. If it doesn't work or your CP tells you to show, show, show, you can always go back and tinker. The point is, don't sweat it too bad. I got my knickers in a knot obsessing over it. Then I just saw, smelled, tasted showing in action and it came together. (I think. Heh heh.) It's a work in progress, really. The more I practice they better I will become, but I've made peace with Show Don't Tell and no longer feel like punching something when I hear those three words.

Any sage SDT nuggets? Please share!
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