Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Gamechanger: A Simple Solution to Show, Not Tell

"Show. Don't tell."

It is the rare writer who hasn't heard this advice at some point in his or her career.

"Show, don't tell" is as much a writer's truism as "kill your darlings" and "marry a trust fund baby."

"I've heard that," I've had writers groan. "It might even be true. But what does it mean? And -- more importantly -- how can I fix it in my writing?"

The "show" mandate simply means your story is strongest when you are presenting the reader with an experience as opposed to reporting on that experience after the fact.
At the game... vs.

It's a matter of involvement.

Showing makes the reader a player -- present during important revelations. Telling keeps the reader at arms' length, removed from the action and sitting on the sidelines, following the game from the bench.

When you tell the reader a fact it does little to engage any of the reader's senses or imagination. Statements like "My father had a soft spot for puppies," or "Col. McShale was a raging alcoholic," rarely have much of an impact on the reader's immersion in the story. They are the literary equivalent of report writing. As soon as you begin telling the reader what happens instead of taking the reader along with you on a journey of discovery, you have lost an important part of your connection to your reader's mind.

However, if, say, the father's affinity for puppies is an important piece of the character puzzle, relating a short incident that shows this could be quite effective. Something like:
"Without so much as a right turn signal, Dad whipped the Volvo to the side of the highway. A semi train three trailers long roared past only a foot from where my head rested against the back seat window. Dad pried his linebacker-sized body out behind the steering wheel and, faster than I could say 'what the hell are you doing?' darted into traffic. 
Time hiccuped. 
My mouth froze in a little 'O' as I watched Dad race across all four lanes and into the median. There, he scooped something dark and bedraggled up to his chest, protecting it like a SuperBowl winning pass as he braved the interstate and returned, panting, to our car. He deposited his prize (a damp, terrified bull terrier pup who stared at him with adoring eyes) in my lap, put the car in gear, and continued our trip without a word."

I'm not suggesting that the preceding piece is literary brilliance. You could probably write a way better example. So go ahead. Do it. I promise: readers will remember Dad's puppy love (or the Colonel's drinking problem, or Aunt Erna's Chippendale addiction, or the next door neighbor's predilection for barbecuing road kill) more if they have the opportunity to see such things for themselves.
...IN the game.

Whenever a character trait is critical, look for ways to show, not tell. Remember how much it impacted the viewer to see Indiana Jones' aversion to snakes? Imagine how much punch would have been lost had the writer simply had a character say something like, "That Indy isn't afraid of anything. Except snakes. I hear he hates snakes."

Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. So How Do I Fix This Sucker?

If you have a tendency to rely on report writing and tell more than you show, try this exercise:

1.) Go through your manuscript italicizing every instance of telling instead of showing.

2.) During your rewrite, on each instance of telling, ask yourself if the story really needs this information for clarity or craft. If "no," cut it. Be ruthless.

3.) When you're finished cutting, revisit everything still italicized and revise to engage the readers, immersing them into the world you have created, giving them a shared experience with your characters. Let your readers get off the bench and join in your game.

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