Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

The now popular phrase “show and tell” originated in kindergartens decades ago with youngsters bringing to class something they wanted to share with their classmates. The child stands in front of the group, holds up what he or she brought, and tells about it. The idea, at this most basic level, is to give beginning scholars experience in communication.

Today the advice in written communication, at least in fiction writing, is “show, don’t tell.” In today’s world, where so much communication—not just television but video games and now even cell phones—happens in visual images, wordy descriptions are out. The long passages of description common a century ago rarely cut it with today’s readers. They don’t have time for them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the patience. Today we want to see things, experience things, not just have someone tell us about them.

This is one of the areas in which I have had to learn new writing skills. Show, don’t tell. Instead of saying “It was really cold out outside,” I write that “when Agnes Baldwin stepped out of the Wells’ Corner Market, the biting wind took her breath away. She gave her scarf an extra toss around her face….” Instead of just telling that Agnes is shocked to learn that Tony is dead, I show her reaction with “Agnes’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, Sharon—no! When? How—?”

Another way this applies is that we try not to simply tell who said something. “He said . . . she said” is passé. More effective is showing the speaker doing something. Sharon set her teacup down . . . Chris went to the sink to wash his hands . . . Chris leaned against the counter and studied her. Where the cup is or the fact that Chris washed his hands or leaned against the counter aren’t actions crucial to the plot, but they help the reader visualize the scene as well as hearing the spoken words that accompany the actions.

Of course there are still times we need “tell.” Otherwise, our books would so large we couldn’t lift them. The writer’s challenge is to discern which is which—which needs to be made vivid by showing and which contributes better to the advancement of the story by being presented in an overview.

I’m still learning. My friend Linda is better at this than I am, and she helps by pointing out when I’ve neglected to show. Then it falls to me as the author to determine if that phrase needs to be reworded, or if it is one where actions need to be summarized.

Show, don’t tell. Who would have guessed in when I taught second grade fresh out of college?

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