The lovely Heather Long is guest blogging for me today. She has some interesting views on Show vs Tell that I wanted her to share:
Editor’s Notes: Show versus Tell
If you’ve ever received an editor’s note or checked out the #editorreport on Twitter, you might think show don’t tell is the complaint of the novice writer. But after more than a decade of writing, I can honestly assure you that showing instead of telling takes practice, patience and perseverance.
Last weekend, during our local chapter meeting featuring Julia Quinn, we talked about the different dialogue tags that authors use to distinguish not only who is talking, but how they are speaking, what they are doing and the emotions they are experiencing.
The Juicy Bits
Showing versus telling is the difference between seeing a prime steak advertised on the menu and sliding your knife into the tender cut, inhaling the rich scent and lifting that first bite to your lips where you can savor the flavor and texture of the meat. Telling says the meat looks good, showing lets you experience what the character is experience.
But the question is, do you have to show everything? For example, in my book Prime Evil, I describe a scene where the main character is brutally attacked and left to die in a night-shadowed parking lot. Alone, she is fighting for her life. During one round of edits, I was asked ‘how does this make her feel’?
Please note, I’m not bagging on the editor here, I think it’s important to assess showing versus telling on a case-by-case basis. In this instant, I don’t think there’s any doubt about what the character is feeling. She’s dying and she doesn’t want to die. She’s alone and she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s bleeding out and has very little time to save herself. I trust the reader to intuit how she is feeling and showing it would be time consuming and could detract from the brutal darkness of the attack.
According to Orson Scott Card and others, “showing” is terribly time consuming and should be reserved for dramatic scenes.
How To Know the Difference
If you can show the story through the character’s actions, words, thoughts, senses or feelings rather than exposition, do it. In the following sample, the underlined exposition are telling, the italicized is showing and the dialogue’s cadence should show the cold, stilted relationship between the characters.
“Ms. Monroe, would you like to take a seat?”
“No I wouldn’t.” I worked to keep an impassive expression on my face, but it was a real effort when every instinct I had told me to get the hell out of there or rip her face off. Either reaction would satisfy the fury clawing up my insides.
“Very well.” Colleen took a seat next to the man she labeled Callanport. She flipped open a large binder that occupied the space, placed there for precisely this moment. “Ms. Monroe, when you were interviewed following your attack, you claimed you’d never seen this man Randall Oakes before.”
“I didn’t claim, I stipulated.”
“All right. You stipulated you had never encountered the suspect Randall Oakes before.”
“That is correct.”
“You were, however, able to recall his facial features with nearly photographic clarity and provided us with a fairly accurate sketch.”
“That is correct.”
“Was that a result of some talent?”
“Trauma induced hysterical recall?” I suggested blithely. I began to pick flecks of mud off my shirt, shilling them at the carpet one after another, giving the task the appearance of my concentration.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
“You take that any way you want to.”
“Ms. Monroe, when you were given photographs of Randall Oakes to
verify, you stated at the time of identification you were positive the man in the photograph was indeed your assailant.”
“You were stabbed four times.”
“You stated you ran from Oakes before he attacked you.”
“Correct.” Bored with the mud on my shirt, I checked Jack’s for flecks of mud, lint or whatever else I could feign attention in.
Don’t Drown the Reader
I am far from being an expert and I find myself ‘telling’ all the time in my first drafts. I go back and dress it up with showing in my revision. I believe you should use adjectives the way you spice your food. Some dishes should be filled with them, powerful enough for you to smell, taste and feel.
Is it important to show everything? No, because sometimes you need shortcuts. Imagine that a woman gets out of a cab, she has one shoe on, one shoe off, her heel is broken, her skirt is damp, three nails on her right hand are cracked and she is juggling her broken briefcase. When she drops her keys, she bursts into tears.
Do you think she’s had a bad day? Most likely, so you don’t have to show the character’s bad day when you can show the results, particularly if they impact the next thing that happens in the character’s story.
The best way to know whether you should be showing or telling is if you can rewrite a ‘tell’ to a ‘show’ and it adds to the story, then you should do that. The one thing I have learned and I continue to apply is don’t be afraid to tell.
Stories need both.
As a child, Heather skipped picture books and enjoyed the Harlequin romance novels by Penny Jordan and Nora Roberts that her grandmother read to her. Heather believes that laughter is as important to life as breathing and that the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus are very real. She recently released MARSHAL OF HEL DORADO, a paranormal western romance. In January, her next Arcana Royale novella SHADOW DANCER will be released from Sapphire Blue Publishing. In the meanwhile, she is hard at work on her next CHANCE MONROE novel. You can learn more about Heather at her website at http://www.heatherlong.net and on Twitter as @HVLong and Facebook a3 http://www.facebook.com/HeatherLongAuthor.