TECHNICAL ISSUES: HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM – SHOW VS. TELL
A funny thing happened on my way to being published. I learned a new vocabulary. I didn’t actually realize this fact until the day I was on the phone with my mother, happily chatting about some changes I made to my current work in progress.
She interrupted me mid-sentence and said, “Wait…what are you talking about?”
Our topic of discussion? Show vs. Tell
Show vs. Tell is undoubtedly one of the most obscure writing rules to comprehend. When used correctly, a vivid Show will submerse the reader in the story. They will visualize the environment, the smells and sounds without being aware the author is feeding them this information. When Show is done right, the reader is INSIDE the characters’ heads. They see, hear and feel what your characters are experiencing, at the exact same time as your characters.
So how does one put on a really great Show? Oh, it’s easy. Just follow one simple rule (note the heavy sarcasm).
Use the five senses. To create a Show the author must fully utilize their characters’ sense of touch, taste, smell, vision and hearing. HOWEVER, all sensory input must be immediate ( remember this for later). Meaning, if you actually use the words smelled, touched, tasted, heard, or saw, you’ve probably got a Tell. Those words in a manuscript are an automatic RED FLAG.
“Now, hold on a second, AJ,” You say. “You tell us to use the five senses, and then tell us we can’t use the five senses.”
Exactly. Like I said, easy. But, wait! There’s more!
Seeing the words smelled, touched, tasted, heard or saw aren’t the ONLY clues that will alert you of a Tell. Any time you stumble across a sentence in your manuscript that doesn’t give the reader a PICTURE, you’ve got a Tell.
A Show is like going to the movies, you see everything, hear everything, and feel everything the characters are going through. A Tell is like telling a friend about that movie.
Tell: I saw she wore a pretty floral dress.
(Can’t see it. Plus, I know hundreds of floral dresses. Which one does this dress resemble?)
Show: The tiny cap sleeves were gathered with elastic. A wide collar slipped gracefully over the shoulders in a soft, romantic sweep. I trailed my gaze down the small rosebud buttons, to the thin belt at the waist. The sheer floral fabric flowed gently to just above the knees.
(Ah. Now I got it. Sounds nice.)
The second example is longer, but now the reader can “see” the dress. (Note: nowhere in the above was the word “saw” used.)
Here’s the tricky part: be careful not to Show by writing several descriptive paragraphs in a row. While this can make for a Show, too many details all at once tend to bog the reader down–otherwise known as the dreaded Information Dump. Authors need to sprinkle their descriptions around a little, like sugar on cereal. Shows are nice, but too much in one place, and bleck.
The best way to balance your Show is to intersperse sensory input throughout the scene. Unless you must describe something in vivid detail for a specific reason, let the Show unfold slowly, in between dialogue and internal thoughts.
Let’s pretend you’ve written a scene where your heroine is in a conference room, meeting your hero for the first time (who just so happens to be the client she’s been dying to land for three years). In the scene, your heroine wouldn’t start this long internal diatribe about what she’s wearing, right? I mean seriously, if you were her would you sit in the chair, look down at your suit, and internally describe it to yourself? Of course not–because you already know what you’re wearing (and so does your character). Besides, you’d be too preoccupied by the instant sizzling attraction to the Greek god at the other end of the room. To have your heroine do this only alerts the reader that you’re dumping a block of information on them, so you can get your heroine’s wardrobe description out of the way. Not to mention this will totally take the reader out of the scene.
The story would better served by having your heroine tug on the bottom of her black silk jacket. Nervously fiddle with the French cuff on her white button-down blouse. Maybe she stumbles on her way out of the room, catching the hem of her slacks with the sharp heel of her black stiletto pump. (Could you “see” what she was wearing from these few hints, and at the same time feel her level of anxiety?)
Good writing By leaking descriptions out slowly and layering them with other sensory input, the author can provide a Show without the reader being overtly aware the Show is even happening.
Another clue to alert the author of too much Tell is overuse of Narrative. If you go on for pages at a time telling the reader what is happening rather than showing them, you’ve got too much Tell.
Narrative Tell: When I got to school I realized I forgot my backpack. John said he would drive me back home, and on the way we stopped at the local coffee shop for breakfast. Even though we didn’t have much time, I was starving and the waitress served us right away. After scarfing down our egg-white omelets, John paid the bill and I left the tip. We swung past my house for my backpack and made it to school in plenty of time for the first bell.
I can’t see anything here. I know what happened, but I can’t see the inside of the coffee shop, the car or backpack…heck, I don’t even know what John looks like.
If this information is central to moving the plot forward, you need to turn it into a scene. If it is NOT central to the plot, consider whether or not this information can be deleted, or combined with another scene in the story.
Okay, so remember earlier when I mentioned making Show immediate? If you struggle with Show vs. Tell, keeping things immediate will actually help you locate and refine your areas of Tell.
Consider this Tell: She looked through the window and saw the lighted Christmas tree.
Immediate Show: Through the window, a million tiny white lights shimmered on the Christmas tree.
You don’t need to “introduce” your Show by telling your readers where your character is looking. In some cases, you can move directly to the Show, and then describe what your character is seeing. If the scene is set up correctly, the reader will already be in your character’s head. They don’t need to be told where he/she is looking because they will see the visual at the same time as your character.
BONUS POINTS: Use strong, active verbs during a Show and your editor will LOVE YOU!
Walked: strode, ambled, sauntered, hurried, lurched, marched, hiked, staggered
Turned: spun, whirled, pivoted, twirled, twisted, veered, rounded
AVOID: gesture, expression, made a face, felt
See? I told you. Easy!
Let’s wrap this up by doing some examples of Show vs. Tell:
Tell: She stepped inside and smelled cinnamon.
Show: She crossed the threshold and the aroma of warm cinnamon wafted past her face, like freshly baked rolls pulled straight from the oven.
Tell: She opened the door to reveal a dark room and felt scared.
Show: She twisted the knob and the door creaked open on rusty hinges. Dark shadows obscured the corners of the vacant room. Fear trickled down her spine, tingling in the tips of her fingers.
Tell: When phone rang, she answered it.
Show: A brilling ring startled her away from the television. She leaned forward and plucked the receiver from the base.
Next Week: POV Issues: Not even Sigmund Freud could be in more than one head at a time!
AJ Nuest lives in northwest Indiana with her loving husband and two beautiful children. She is the Senior Editor for Still Moments Publishing, and the author of two contemporary romance novels.
Visit her on the web at:
Facebook: Tattered Pages
Jezebel’s Wish Buy Links: