Show vs Tell: The Wrong Way

Author: Anastasia V. Pergakis // Category: ,


All writer's know the saying "Show Don't Tell" but what does that really mean?

This post will talk about Telling - the wrong way and tomorrow I'll show the right way - to Show.
Setting

Setting is easy to just tell about it. List off the specs of a room or area. It's rather boring and when reading I often skip these paragraphs.

Here is an example, taken from an old draft of mine.

Her four post bed was large - something Rosyani thought was ridiculous - and took up most of the floor space in the room. Her wardrobe sat along the wall to the left of the bed, while her writing desk was on the opposite wall. Rosyani's dowry chest rested at the foot of the bed, preventing the door from opening all the way.

I'll show this again tomorrow, rewritten in the right way. (Or at least a better way)

Characters

The only time I feel it's right to raddle off a list of character specs is if the character doing the observing is a spy or a cop or someone who would literally list specs of another person. Otherwise, I skip over these list of specs as well when reading. You can usually find a list of character specs in one full sentence - at least I do.

Pulling the soft flowing dress over her head, she smiled to herself. The green color accented the green flecks in her normally blue eyes. She continued to smile as she tied a simple silver belt around her waist with her pouch. Rosyani glanced in the mirror as she added her one piece of jewelry - a colorful bracelet her father had given her before he died. The princess pulled her long blond hair into a single braid - her usual style - before looking around her room.

This example here, might not read exactly as a list of specs, but it is rather boring I say. I mention every aspect of her looks in one paragraph. I think the very original version of this paragraph also included her high cheekbones and full, pouty lips but I don't have that version on this computer. But still - it's a dull paragraph.

Action

But Harley, action is supposed to be short commanding sentences. Yes, but it loses the edge when the sentences fall into a pattern of "this, then this, then that". Some may not say this is part of the "show don't tell" but I think so. SHOW the action, don't just TELL it.

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. Since she was not looking where she was going she ran into the top of a tree and fell. She landed on the ground with a thud. She opened her eyes to see a pair of sandaled feet.

Seriously, I am very dissapointed at myself with this original draft. It's all telling, no showing.

Dialogue

Once again, I think this fits into "show vs tell" nicely but some may disagree with me. SHOW me how the characters talk, don't just tell me. This is where the adverbs tend to take over thus losing the actual feel of the scene or conversation. (I made this scene up on the spot, so it's probably worse off than normal.)

"Damn it all to hell!" she whispered harshly.

"What?"

"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."

"It just wouldn't!" she yelled then stormed out of the room.

Yea, didn't really tell you much about what was going on did it? It was hard for me not to fill in all the holes and such here as the scene played out in my head - but don't worry. You'll get the whole scene tomorrow!

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

Dawn Embers Says :
April 21, 2010 at 3:34 PM

Excellent topic.

I am finding one of the top problems in my What If...? contest, number 2 on the list of things I mention in reviews, is that of telling. (#1 is just answering the what if question instead of giving a fictional story.)

It's so easy to tell the story, as if trying to talk to a reader about how the day went. And so many people do it without really noticing. Some even forget about character all together when telling about something. (Hard to believe but true.)

But I'll admit. Even though I know the rule, I find myself sometimes telling instead of showing. Right now I'm struggling with figuring out how to show certain things and it's really difficult for me. And in first drafts, I'll just let it go if I have to and tell. Since the point of the first draft is to get it down, and I'll never submit for publication (though I do it on WDC) a first draft.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ Says :
April 21, 2010 at 4:38 PM

Show, Don't Tell is such an important aspect of dynamic writing. Great post! Looking forward to your showing examples :)

Swing by my blog -- I left you an award there today!

Kirsten Lesko Says :
April 21, 2010 at 5:55 PM

This rule drove me bonkers in the beginning. It's a tough one to nail - I'm not entirely convince I have it figured out yet.

I pretty much tell if I need to fast forward & try show everywhere else. But like Dawn says, writers often do it without noticing.

sarahjayne smythe Says :
April 21, 2010 at 7:22 PM

Great post. You can never hear this too often. :)

Harley D. Palmer Says :
April 21, 2010 at 8:11 PM

Dawn - I agree. Get the first draft down and worry about fixing it later. I do that most of the time.

Nicole - Thanks for the award! It is an important part, but like the other commenters said, it's often misunderstood. I'll most likely continue this theme for a while and really get into nitty gritty details about it.

Kirsten - I don't have it all the way figured out yet either. I can pinpoint it most of the time when reviewing but trying to remember to do it in my own writing is another story.

Sarah - Thanks! I hope it helps folks to understand what it really means a bit better.

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