How to “Show, Don’t Tell”

 

by Chrys Cymri

I’m still getting used to the life of a self-published author, particularly in this age of Amazon and customer reviews. Authors are advised that books need to have reviews, the more reviews the better, even those which are not entirely positive.

In order to obtain those reviews, I’ve been involved in various ‘review exchanges.’ I read one writer’s book and post a review, and s/he does the same with one of mine. Better yet are the non-reciprocal reviews set up by groups on Goodreads, in which people sign up for a review round and the moderator ensures that you are not reviewing the work of someone who is reading your book. This is to ensure complete honesty.

So I’ve been reading a lot of self-published work. Some of the books have been real finds, and I’ve enjoyed them. Others… Sadly I’ve had to leave some less than complimentary reviews, for various reasons.

One of the greatest failings of these books, which have not been screened by any professional publishing process, is the emphasis on telling the reader. In great detail. The advice to writers is always, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But many writers seem to ignore this. There are long paragraphs telling us exactly how the character is feeling, rather than finding some way to show us these emotions by means of what the characters does and says.

There are several levels to telling versus showing. For example, one could write, ‘Sarah glared at John, annoyed at his interruptions.’ There may be no need to state that she’s annoyed, if the dialogue earlier showed his multiple interruptions, and ‘glared’ already indicates this. Better yet might be indication her feelings by dialogue. ‘Sarah glared at John. “Maybe you could let me finish a sentence once in awhile?”’

Perhaps writers fear to trust that the reader can fill in the gaps. If a piece of dialogue ends in an exclamation mark, I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘he shouted’, never mind, ‘he shouted angrily.’ If we have the line of dialogue, ‘Look out!’ I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘she shouted in warning.’ Again, surely that’s obvious?

It’s made me more aware of showing versus telling in my own writing. For example, in my novel ‘The Temptation of Dragons,’ Morey, the small gryphon who has come into Penny’s life, is proving to be very annoying. In a scene in Morey’s room, I originally wrote this:

We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’

‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’

His snobbery was beginning to eat away at my patience. ‘They’re easier to lift than your books.’

‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ He cocked his head. ‘You didn’t offer me any wine.’

I worked with this scene because I felt there was no need to tell the reader that Morey was being a snob. The conversation made this very clear, I felt. Nor did I want to tell the reader that this was annoying Penny, at least not directly. So after some work, this is how the exchange now appears in the book:

We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’

‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’

‘They’re easier to lift than your books,’ I pointed out.

‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’

I was tempted to find out how many volumes of the Summa it took to squash a small gryphon. ‘I can always look it up on-line.’

Morey cocked his head. ‘You didn’t offer me any wine.’

I like this so much better. Not only have I shown Penny’s annoyance, there’s a reference back to the books in question. And she gets in a retort of her own.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Chrys Cymri. Chrys is a priest by day and a dragon whisperer and writer by night. Her parrot Tilly is her main inspiration and distraction

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12 thoughts on “How to “Show, Don’t Tell””

  1. Telling sneaks and slides its way into my writing. Just when I think I’ve weeded every one of those pesky Tells out, there they are again.
    I’d like to believe my laptop pops them in while I’m sleeping, but no. It’s all on me 😦

    Like

  2. I hesitate to say “Show, don’t tell”, because I feel both have their uses, but I definitely agree that it’s often easier to tell, and most slip into the bad habit of over-telling more often than not.

    In my mind it all boils down to a more thorough revision process, really interrogate the writing, asking what the text is trying to express, and whether or not there is a better way.

    Like

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