If you've been writing for more than fifteen seconds, you've heard some version of the "show, don't tell" mantra. The first time the phrase was hurled at me, I was sitting in a freshman year English class. The instructor held up my essay as a shining example of "acceptable" writing, then read the paragraph in which I'd used the forbidden word "felt."
The instructor was not pleased. She said we obviously didn't hear her previous three lectures. We must be deaf. So she'd speak up. She proceeded to shout. "Don't tell me your character is happy or sad. Show me! Don't tell me your hero is brave or cowardly. Show me!" The instructor continued with her list of offenses while hurling our papers at us and demanding we try again.
I thought she was nuts. How do you show feelings? In the mood she was in, I wasn't about to ask in public, so I stayed after class and asked in private. I needn't have bothered. She answered in a voice loud enough for everyone on the quad to hear. She declared me an unimaginative idiot. Of course you can show feelings. Couldn't I tell how people felt by simply observing them? When she stopped her tirade long enough to take a breath, I whispered a quick thank you and ran, red-faced, from the classroom.
That instructor didn't have great people skills, but I never forgot the lesson.
What brought on this lovely memory? Chapter one of Self-Editing for for Fiction Writers is called "Show and Tell." The chapter thoroughly covers the topic with information and examples, but I wanted to gather everything I had on the topic before attacking the exercises at the end of the chapter.
I'm an excellent procrastinator!
I searched in vain for my college notes. (Yes, I did keep them. I just don't know where I stored them on my last move.) I found several other texts that address the topic, but without examples, and I found previous articles here at The Blood-Red Pencil with good examples - including:
Little Things Mean A Lot by Morgan Mandel – demonstrates how to show character traits
Feelings… by Maryann Miller - provides examples on how to show feelings
Show me your story; don’t just tell it to me by Marvin Wilson (the master of short titles) provides a fine example of the difference between showing and telling.
Even great procrastinators need to eventually perform some useful task. So after reviewing the handy checklist at the end of chapter one, "Show and Tell", I went to work on my latest mystery novel. Here's an abbreviated version of the checklist:
- Are there long passages where nothing happens in real time?
- Do you have too much narrative summary?
- Are you missing narrative summary between scenes to give the reader a break?
- Are you describing your characters feelings?
For my story, I had to introduce two new characters, establish one as a homophobic banker and the other as a bouncer (in a gay bar) who isn't fond of women. I also needed to educate the reader on some weapons my protagonist will use in the near future. How would you accomplish this? I'll post my solution in the comments. I hope you'll give it a shot as well.
Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:
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