So I wanted to talk to you about Showing not Telling again. I think this post is going to be a little long, so please try to bear with me. Again, if you didn’t read the previous post, I am writing at…2:42 AM now. So please forgive me if I make a little less sense than usual.
The reason I wanted to talk about this again is that I really am seeing a lot of books that fall into that trap of Telling not Showing. I know I’ve talked about it before, so I’m going to try and give a more thorough explanation, using different examples.
If you went onto a talk show tomorrow, you would find that smiling, bubbly host asking you lots of personal questions. Probably intrusive ones you don’t really feel comfortable answering on national TV.
And one of those questions, you might expect, would be something like, “What was it like for you growing up?”
At that point, you would be perfectly within your right to say, “I was born on May 18th, 1986. My parents divorced when I was three and my sister was five. It really tore me up. I didn’t think I would ever trust anyone enough to agree to marry them, knowing what my parents had gone through.”
That’s fine. That is the epitome of “telling.” That’s what you do when you’re asked a question. And, in this situation, it is okay.
It is not okay to talk like that in a book, with the exception of, perhaps, a biography. Just as it would be totally inappropriate for you to jump up and attempt to mime your childhood for a talk show’s audience….
…you cannot turn your book into a personal’s ad for your main character.
The thing about books is that readers like to figure things out on their own. It is exceptionally boring to read something like, “John was terrified of dating because of a bad experience he had five years prior where his date dumped Tuna Flambe on his lap.” It is much more interesting to see a scene in which John is on a date, nervous, fidgeting, and fighting the flashbacks of the tuna fiasco. Don’t believe me? I’ll leave it to your judgement.
Option 1 – Telling: John was terrified of dating because of a bad experience he had five years prior where his date dumped Tuna Flambe on his lap.
Option 2 – Showing: John couldn’t keep his leg from shaking. His eyes darted toward the exit. It wouldn’t be an easy escape; there were at least five other tables between him and freedom. Still, it couldn’t be as bad as last time, when he’d had tuna flakes dripping off his crotch as he’d bolted for the door.
“Am I boring you?”
John jumped and looked back at the gorgeous blonde sitting across from him. Gina had had red hair. She is not Gina, he told himself firmly. She didn’t even order the tuna flambe. Mainly because this restaurant didn’t serve that dish.
“No…sorry,” he said, maybe a little too late.
She was not amused.
“I’m sorry, Dana.”
“Amber. Sorry. I just…I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”
Five tables between him and the exit, and each one of them was occupied by confused restaurant patrons, watching John’s Scramble of Shame as he fled the establishment. Five years. Five whole years since…the incident, and he was still running. I’m going to need five more before I can make it to the main course, he thought bitterly.
So. Which did you like better? And, no, before you ask, the difference isn’t length. It’s not. The length is necessary if you want the reader to have a journey to follow. There is no journey in Option 1. There is a journey in Option 2. I guess the length is also there because Showing uses a combination of so many different elements, like dialogue, narration, thoughts, etc. It’s like an organ system that runs a living being. Each part does its own job. So, when you’re writing, really think about how you can show your readers the important details. Make them feel the burn of the hot tuna searing them through their seersucker pants right along with your protagonist. That’s what keeps a reader, well…reading.
Done and done! Don’t forget to check out the new Behind the Scenes page where you can see exactly how I make the magic happen. (Requests for a section on how to draw the Yeti will be accepted, and taken into consideration)
Word of the Day: Fiasco (n) – a complete and ignominious failure.
(Ignominious (adj): – discreditable; humiliating)