Show vs Tell: The Right Way

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category: ,


Yesterday I posted up some examples of telling, the wrong way to show detail and action. Today, I'll be rewriting those blurbs to show showing, the right way.

This post may end up a little long as showing ups the word count considerably. But, in the whole context of a novel or story, that really goes a long way.

As with all things, you must remember balance. Going overboard with showing can drag the story down. Show the important things! If your character is running at full speed, would she/he really notice every single detail? Probably not - so you don't need to talk about every single detail - but it still needs to be shown the correct way.

Setting

Rosyani threw herself on the silk covers of her four post bed. She punched the pillow in frustration and stood to pace around the crowded room. Her toe hit the corner of her dowry chest as she tried to round the end of the bed. She held back the curse, kicked the chest, and cursed aloud. The dowry chest was practically empty anyway, so why did she have it sitting there at the foot of her bed? She opened the lid and took out the few things resting in the velvet interior. Full of cheap, childish keepsakes instead of an actual dowry for marriage, her eyes swelled with tears.

Anger took hold and she picked up the large stone and threw it at the mirror on her vanity. The satisfactory shattering of glass fueled her to pick up a thick tattered book and chuck it at the wardrobe. The strong mahogany held and the book fell to pieces on the floor.

I rewrote yesterday's example on the spot because in the rewrite that the novel originally came from, that scene no longer applied. This is a bit rough I'm sure, but it still shows you how showing the room through Rosyani's perception and actions made for a much better read then listing off the specs.

Characters

I was not sure at first how to rewrite this part as I feel it is necessary to spread out character detail over the course of the novel or based on what other characters would take notice of. I have one male character that is constantly mesmerized by the heroine's eyes but another male character (from another novel) has a fascination with the girl's markings on her skin. So, I posted two paragraphs here, from two different scenes (with the same characters) so that you can see how it's better to space it out instead of listing all a characters assets in one paragraph.

1. Her hair was a frizzy mess with tendrils falling about her face. The green gown she wore was dirty and wrinkled. She looked more like a commoner as opposed to a princess. Drache felt guiltier than ever. She walked with small steps to avoid tripping over the iron chains that hung around her wrists and ankles. She never once looked up from the floor.

2. Drache watched her talking with her brother. Her green eyes sparkled with blue hues, a unique pattern that hypnotized him if he was not careful. While her muscles were tense at the sounds of her sisters cackling and whining at her back, he could tell she loved her brother very much. Her smile was radiant as they talked and Drache wished he could find a way to make her smile the same way. Her smiles toward him had always been genuine over the past year, but none were to that level of utter happiness.

For those that know the general idea from this novel from reading previous excerpts, you know that the first paragraph was when Drache first met Rosyani and the second one is after they were married and he was meeting her siblings for the first time. So you can see how bringing details as Drache noticed them, instead of listing them off, made for better reading. Even though I didn't talk about her hair in the second paragraph, you could easily picture it shiny and golden.

Action

Yesterday, I said to show the action, instead of tell it but as I fell asleep last night my brain when "What the heck does that mean?" So, I'm going to try and explain it as there is a difference. So I hope I don't completely confuse you with this.

The example yesterday was a good example of repetitive sentence structure. "This, then this, then that." To me that is considered telling the action. To show the action instead, emotions, details, and other things need to come into play. As you will see below, I added more to what Soraya did in reaction to what happened to her instead of just listing the action - OH! There it is, telling is just the action, but showing includes the reaction. Yes. I think that works.

Soraya gave up trying to talk to him and flew into the woods towards the castle. She looked over her shoulder to see if the faery was following her. Turning over her shoulder caused her to veer off her course and she ran into a tree. The knock to her head made it impossible for her to recover her flight. She caught branches on her way down and grasped at anything in order to save herself. The ground came up fast, smacking her with a force that knocked the wind from her lungs. She quickly covered her head with her hands as branches and twigs fell on top of her. Once she was able to breathe, she opened her eyes and saw a pair of sandaled feet.

Okay, there are other things wrong with that paragraph, but you get the idea of what I'm trying to say. Obviously, if she ran into a tree like that and fell, she would have some major reactions (i.e. disorientation, short of breath, etc.). So make sure to show action the right way, by explaining the reactions along side the actions.

Dialogue

This one I don't think needs to be explained really. Dialogue is very useful to move a story along and reveal more information. But it still needs to be done correctly! While the example I made yesterday wasn't necessarily wrong, think of all that was missing from it? Internal thought, action, etc. In real life people talk with their hands, their eyes, their bodies at the same time they speak words. So in writing we need to show that too!

"Damn it all to hell!" she muttered. She stepped from his embrace, already missing the warmth found in his arms.

"What's wrong?"

She could see the pain and confusion swirling in his amber eyes. She hated to hurt him, but she knew it wasn't meant to be.

"I do want you but you know that this can't work," she said.

"Why not?" he asked. "The chemistry is there. We care about each other."


But is that enough? She wanted more. A commitment. That required more than just chemistry and care. What about love, passion, and fire? She felt those things for him with such fierceness it hurt. He obviously did not feel the same. Her heart broke into a million pieces as she took another step away from him.

"It just wouldn't!" she choked, trying to hold back the tears. She ran from the room to make sure he didn't see her cry.


Again, there is a lot still wrong with that scene there, but you can see how adding in her internal thoughts added SO much more to the scene. It really carried stronger emotions and got you to understand her pain. (A little. Like I said, there is still a lot wrong with it, but it is still better than yesterdays - hopefully you see the point still.)

Speaking of stronger emotions, I felt that they deserved a show vs tell post of their own. So come back tomorrow for some great examples of emotions and how to show them rather than just tell them.

5 Responses to "Show vs Tell: The Right Way"

Cheree Says :
April 22, 2010 at 9:42 AM

Great advice. Showing (not telling) is the part that I always have difficulties with. I've got to really learn how to start showing the things that happen rather than telling.

Eric W. Trant Says :
April 22, 2010 at 2:02 PM

I picture it as a movie scene. That helps keep the tell-monster at bay!

Bradbury did this. He said he didn't write words, he described visions.

Or something like that.

In any case, that's what I do: I describe my visions.

- Eric

Haley Jo Says :
April 22, 2010 at 2:29 PM

I love these posts. Yesterday was the basic rough draft. I find that I will do that so much. Who said what, what does it look like, what do they look like, what are they feeling. Tell it as it is. Today is the comments I make in my own writing to turn it into that polished piece of art.

I think you did an amazing job at desribing show. Sadly, I'm still in edit mode in a bad way and I noticed all the little issues with the writing, but from yesterday to today this is an amazing change.

I learn best by seeing examples of what I should be doing differently, and seeing this, I want to go back through my MS to make sure I haven't missed anything while its still fresh in my mind.

Thanks so much for the great posts!

-HaleyJo

Iapetus999 Says :
April 23, 2010 at 7:08 PM

You've hit on the basic problem...showing adds wordcount. Yes, showing is better. But sometimes it's okay to say, "it was cold." and not have to describe puffing breath, ice crystals, chills, etc.
You just want to show what's important. Like for your setting example, it's definitely better. Something's happening. But does all that carrying on help the story? Or is it a distraction?

I see these posts all the time, that more words is better, but it also means somewhere you're just going to have to cut something and replace it with a line of telling.

"Show, don't tell" is brain-dead obvious. How to show and not drown in it is the real secret I think.
:)

Nice series!

Medeia Sharif Says :
April 24, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Great post. I'm going to read your previous posts about this. I was a teller many years ago when I started writing. When I switched to showing, it made a world of a difference.

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