Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's Showtime! Show vs Tell

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Show don't tell. At some point, every writer hears it and every writer hates it. It's critical to crafting a story that works, but what exactly does it mean? And more importantly, how do you make sure you're using it correctly in your own work.

Showing is dramatizing, making readers feel in the moment and there with the character as the story unfolds. Telling is hearing about it all secondhand. It's describing the situation, not the story. Kinda like reading a review of The Lion King vs. going to see The Lion King.

One trick I use to show and not tell is to imagine myself acting out whatever it is my characters are doing. If I can do what they do, I'm showing. If not, I'm telling.

For example:
"I hate you," I said angrily.
You can stand in the room and say "I hate you." But act out "angrily." You can't really. You can act out things that show angrily, but there's nothing about the adverb itself that you can physically do. The only way to show it, is to do something else.
"I hate you," I yelled, kicking the door closed.
Now, you can yell and you can kick the door closed. Both show anger and let someone watching you be able to figure out your mood by observing your actions.

Try this one:
I walked slowly across the room.
You can do this. Slowly has a physical connotation, so even though it's an adverb and needs walked to complete it, it conveys real actable action. But when you walk slowly across the room, exactly what do you do? Tip toe? Slink? Even though you can walk slowly, there's probably an even better way to describe it.

Thoughts are a little harder, as you can sit there and think, but it's what you think that makes all the difference.
She sighed, realizing she'd left her car keys on her desk.
Sighing you can do, but act out someone realizing. Again, you really can't. You're telling that the person is realizing she forgot her keys.
Oh crap. She sighed. The keys were on her desk, right next to the stupid report she also forgot to grab.
You can sigh, and you can think "oh crap," and you can also think the internalization that comes after.

Thoughts can be extra tricky, because sometimes it is acceptable to say things like, "I wondered if there was any ice cream in the freezer" or "I realized how stupid I was being." I wish there was a hard and fast rule for judging this, but there's not. It's just something you develop an ear for over time. The rule of thumb I use, is to keep them to a minimum and keep them in the point of view's voice. As long as it feels like the character thinking it, you're usually okay. But as soon as it sounds like the author butting in to explain things, you've fallen into telling.

This trick won't apply to everything, but it's a good foundation for most show don't tell problems.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Oh my goodness, this is super helpful. Many times I've heard "show don't tell", but never has someone explained it so well!! Thank you, and off I go to rewrite some things!!

  2. Good explanation. It's pretty much the same approach I take as well. Very useful for a first person perspective a sight more difficult from 2nd or 3rd person.

  3. Love how you use examples to highlight points. It makes understanding faster and cleaner. Putting this in my writing file as a guide. Thanks!

  4. Great post--will bookmark it to share!

  5. Last two lines were absolutely perfect in summing up the post! Perfect!
    Thanks for the reminder!
    Oh, and I love your examples!

  6. Paul: Thanks!

    Genelempp: Most welcome. I'm a big fan of examples.

    Bri: Thanks!

    Ruth: Glad it was helpful.

    Escape Artist: Thanks!

  7. Love! What else can I say? You are constantly influencing the way I write.

  8. I agree with what others have said --- the examples are incredibly helpful.

    An awesome post - thanks so much Janice!


  9. Great post and I like your examples too. :)

  10. Great post and a very good explanation of what that dichotomy actually means in practice.

  11. This is genius! The best explanation I've heard for this yet. Thank you!

  12. DB: In a good way I hope! LOL.

    Judy: Most welcome :) This was a trick that really helped me with it.

    Jacqvern: Thanks!

    Mary Kate: Thanks a lot :)

    Mallory: Aw thanks! Makes me happy when a trick of mine resonates with so many.

  13. So, so, so helpful!

  14. Thanks! Always happy to hear that.

  15. The best explanation I have come across to date. Thanks!