Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Do We Mean by Show, Not Tell?

One of the first stories I wrote was about a family who dropped out of the rat race of the city and went to live in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains and how much happier they all were. Not so coincidentally, John Denver was my favorite singer at the time, and Apple's Way was one of my favorite TV shows (yes, I am dating myself.)

Not only was my plot completely unoriginal, but the story was about 5 pages long. Double spaced. 12 point font. I wish I still had it because it is the quintessential example of "telling" instead of "showing" the story. Here this family went through a major life change, and I managed to complete the story about it in about 1250 words. Not only that, but I didn't even have any dialogue!

For some reason, none of the magazines to which I submitted this story were interested. Nevertheless, I doggedly kept sending it back out, until after about a year, I actually sat down and read it again and was mortified to think that I had been sending such a piece of junk out for other people to read.

No, I didn't rewrite the story because the plot was just so unoriginal, but I did learn a major lesson about the difference between telling a story and showing a story. When you are telling a story, what you basically have is an outline of the things that happen in the story or book. You cover a great amount of ground in a very few pages, or even paragraphs. When you are showing the story, you are coloring in between the lines. Compare the richness of a coloring book outline to a Monet or Van Gogh painting, and you will see the huge difference between telling and writing.

We once received a manuscript in which there was an accident in which three people were killed. The police arrived at the scene and asked if any of the bystanders could identify the men. A conveniently placed woman not only was able to identify the three men, but gave their entire life histories to the police in about two pages. She talked without any interruption at all by the police or anybody else. Needless to say, we rejected that manuscript.

So how can you tell if you are telling instead of showing? One good way is to go through your manuscript and count the major plot points that happen and compare them to the number of pages. If you are writing a short story and you count more than 4 or 5 major plot points, then you probably have a problem.

Another way to tell if you are showing and not telling is by the amount of action you have that happens off scene. If you find that you tend to have major events happening off scene to be dispensed with in a few words later in the narrative, then you have a problem. Take the Harry Potter books, for instance. In the first book, Harry continuously receives admission letters to Hogwarts Academy. The Durselys try boarding up the mailbox and chimney to no avail-- the
letters keep arriving. They finally get in their car and drive to the ocean where they rent a boat that carries them out to an island with a lighthouse, where they spend the night. Their sleep, however, is interrupted by the arrival of Hagrid who comes to take Harry to Hogwarts.

All of this is shown in meticulous detail as Harry's uncle gets more and more frustrated with the constant letters. Imagine how less satisfying it would have been if J.K. Rowling had simply said, "Hogwarts Academy sent many letters of acceptance to Harry,(1) but the Durseleys would not let him have the letters.(2) They finally fled to a desert island in an attempt to evade the letters,(3) but Hagrid found them and took Harry away.(4)" The numbers in parentheses indicate the major events-- notice that paragraph has 4 major events. Does it tell what happened? Of course it does. But does it show us what happened? No!

Inside of you there is a rich story that is demanding to be put on paper (or on the computer). Show all of your story, not just the bare outlines.

Writing Exercise:
Now it's time for all of you to dust off your keyboard and do a little exercise. Look at the sentence below:

"A middle-aged man opened the door."

This is a very common type of sentence, and there's nothing wrong with it. However, it could be made so much more descriptive if the writer approached it in a different way. HOW does the narrator know that the man is middle-aged? WHAT identifies him as such?

The writer could rewrite the sentence to say something like, "The man who opened the door was balding and had a slight paunch. However, his eyes twinkled brightly behind his bifocal lenses and the lines around his mouth testified to many years of ready smiles."

Both sentences say the same thing, but the latter sentence gives the reader a much better feel for the man.

So here is your exercise. Take the following sentence:

"Joe left angrily."

and rewrite it so that it SHOWS us Joe's anger. HOW does the narrator know that Joe is angry?

You can post your sentences below or email them to me at dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com. (Use the phrase "Blog Exercise" in the subject header.)

I hope to hear from you soon!


Anonymous Jaala! said...

"Joe didn't even care that he kicked the cat while leaving in a huff. The cat was slightly perturbed by it, though."


9:56 AM  
Anonymous Laura said...

Here's my attempt,

Joe slammed his coffee cup on the counter; smashed his cap on his head, then shoved his way through the crowded cafe.


12:53 PM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

Lovely! Kudos to both Jaala and Laura!

11:50 PM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

"Nothing was safe in Joe's path. He kicked the nearby cat which bared teeth and hissed back switching his tail. Next, the screen door slammed as Joe moved outside looking for more ways to release. Frowning increased the deep wrinkles in his brow and his mood continued to sour while his lousy outlook stayed steady. "It's all in the mind," Joe muttered lashing out trying to convince himself that it wasn't even his fault, at least not this time."

via email from Alyson

9:20 PM  
Blogger Swimming Kangaroo said...

Joe’s lips were pressed firmly together with no teeth showing. His eyes glared at the speaker intently. He made a fist with one hand which he cradled with his other hand.

via email from Ursula

6:45 PM  

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