Show and Tell


What do writers do? They showcase stories in an artful and meaningful way by conveying emotions, building worlds, and creating characters such that a reader becomes invested and involved.

Accomplishing this task is not easy. It takes time, diligence, an openness—and ability—to learn, with a fair bit of talent thrown in for good measure.

As I look back at my writing journey and take stock in my progress, I realize just how much my use of grammar, syntax, and style has grown. In the “old days,” I focused on describing as many details as possible. God forbid my reader get lost along the way! To save them the puzzle of trying to figure things out, I catalogued every step my characters made. I ended up agonizing over finding yet another way to say, “She sighed,” or, “He said.” On top of that, to create a clear picture of my world, I described the placement of every object, the passing of every moment—often in a concrete and linear fashion.

The result? Too much “tell” and not enough “show.”

What does that mean? Well, it means my writing sounded like: First, he did this. Then she did that. Next they both…Finally, she stomped away, mad. (Imagine an overall lack of dialogue exchanges within this, please.)

Ah, now that the embarrassing confession is out there, I can reflect on what happened.

Pages of my manuscript were devoted to developing and describing the setting, then the action happened in two paragraphs, and I ended the scene to jump on to the next set up. Understandably, it left the reader confused, frustrated, and well, a lot less interested. Why? There was little time to invest in the characters. They were always saying, “Oh, I did this and that. But now it’s later and I’m telling you what happened after the fact.”

No! That’s not what I wanted. I wanted more tension, more drama, more…more!

It took several betas reading and commenting on my work and several beta readings of others’ work to realize what I was doing. I figured out I really don’t have to describe the walk home from the prom if all that happens is left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. But if Mindy and Jeff have a fight along the way to Makeout Point, I better pay attention to it and use all the resources I’ve got to milk the conflict! Mindy can stomp her foot, Jeff can roll his eyes. They can talk to each other! Gasp!

In all honesty, choosing what to describe in a plot can be challenging at times. I don’t want to make such huge leaps in the flow that requires a bridge the size of the Delaware Bay Bridge/Tunnel to cross. At the same time, I don’t want to reduce a jump to the size of a 12 inch wide stream. Where’s the challenge in that?  

I’ve learned now that developing an eye for it takes time. And experience. And listening to what other writers who have been through it have to say.

So, I put my big girl pants and listening ears on and took in all the advice given to me. Even if I didn’t like it! Just like the 3D stereograph images where hidden pictures are revealed while you stare at them, I came to recognize the difference between showing and telling. And I have learned a strategy to beat it. I can highlight the plot through dialogue and action. I can move the story along by not describing every microsecond. With confidence, I can say: “Out damned ‘was ___ing’ and ‘began to’! There is no room for you in my manuscript! Be gone, pages of description lacking dialogue! Leave me, retched passive voice!”

Okay, so I still slip up along the way, but that’s the process of learning and practicing an art. So, I’m sending a big THANK YOU to my beta readers! I hope to return the favor as fruitfully as it was given to me.

Tell me, friends, what strategies do you use to combat the “telling” blues?

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One comment on “Show and Tell

  1. ElanaJ says:

    It is quite a journey we’re on, right? Glad you’ve gotten some good feedback, applied it and I’m sure you’re going to make a big splash soon!

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