Monday, 5 December 2011

Show Don't Tell

Who among us has not seen those dreaded words in the margin of a manuscript?   It sounds so easy.  “Show, don’t tell. ”
Those of us who are, shall we say, of more mature years, are programmed to tell.  Our parents and grandparents told us stories.  Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and Dostoyevsky all told their stories.  And they were very good stories indeed.

Blair McDowellBut the times have changed.  The shift in reader expectations from passive to active involvement in stories began, I believe, with motion pictures in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Movies pulled people into their stories in a way print never had.  For the first time stories were made visual.  Of course, plays existed before.  But only a minute proportion of the population ever went to the theater.  With the advent of movies, suddenly drama was available to everyone.

Blair McDowellThen came television.  Living other people’s stories was no longer a once-a-week movie experience, it became a nightly event.  Drama came into people’s living rooms and captured an audience far beyond that of most books. Plots moved fast.  They had to. There was only a half hour or hour time slot in which to drawthe audience into the story. The story was visual.  The actions observable.  Emotions were shown, not described.  No imagination was necessary on the part of the viewer.  It was all there to see and to hear and to identify with.

Video games came next.  Action at the speed of light with the players in charge of the story.

A result of all this recent history is that we as writers must adapt to a very different set of reader expectations than our predecessors.  Today’s readers expect to see the story.  And a natural corollary of this is that they want their stories to move faster, to be shorter. Where the 90,000 to 110,000 word novel used to be the norm, now shorter works are more in demand.

Stories must pull readers quickly into the experiences of the characters.  From the first page they must feel what our characters feel, see what they see.  Hear, smell, taste, touch, vicariously what our characters see, hear, smell, taste, touch.  The use of all five senses is vital to helping readers live our stories.

I rely heavily on the five senses in my stories.  In The Memory of Roses, the scent of that flower is a connecting link between the two love stories and forms a continuous thread from the beginning to the end of the novel.  In Delighting In Your Company, the ghost hero sings and whistles the tune, Greensleeves from the first pages to the last.  Abigail’s Christmas is replete with the sights, sounds and scents of Christmas.  Using the five senses is one of the easier ways of showing.

Delighting in Your Company by Blair McDowell
Abigail's Christmas by Blair McDowell
We cannot simply say that a character is sad, happy, nervous, tense, anxious.  We must show what the character is doing that physically expresses the emotion he/she is feeling. This is not always easy.  But this is what “Show, don’t tell” means.

Here are two ways to tell whether we’ve slipped into telling where we should be showing.
The first and most obvious is the use of the words “feel” “feeling” and “felt”.  If any of these words is present in a sentence, we’re probably not showing, we’re telling.  A computer search of the manuscript for these words will let us know immediately where we need to revise.
Amy felt deeply saddened as she looked around her father’s empty study.

Clearly, this is telling.  What actions could we have Amy do that would show the reader she is sad?  If she were an actress with no lines to speak in this scene, what could she do to let us know how she feels?
She could sigh.  She could brush her hand across his desk and shake her head.  If she is deeply distressed she could cry.  She put her head in her hands.  Her body might slump. We need to tap into the physical actions, the behaviors that indicate sorrow.

Another area where it is easy to fall into “telling” rather than “showing” is the point in the story at which we describe what our hero or heroine looks like.

Telling: Amy had short auburn hair that never looked quite combed.
Showing: Amy ran a brush through her short auburn hair and shrugged.  She knew it never looked combed but she really didn’t care.  

 Telling: Andy had well-muscled shoulders and a broad chest.
Showing: Amy leaned against Andy, taking comfort from his strong arms and the solidity of his chest.  
Telling: Amy set about cooking breakfast for the kids.
Showing:  The bacon began to sizzle.  Amy turned to the stove, cracked four farm-fresh eggs into the hot bacon fat and watched as the edges began to brown.  Three pajama clad boys tumbled into the kitchen.  Amy smiled.  Nothing like the smell of bacon and eggs to rouse the troops .

Hearing, seeing and smelling were all a part of the above example.  When we draw on the five senses in a scene we always come closer to showing.

Any time we name an emotion we are telling rather than showing.  Almost any time we use a word with an “ly” ending (gladly, sadly, grudgingly, happily, etc.  etc) we are telling, not showing.  I regularly do a computer search for ly.  Sometimes I leave the word.  But usually I try to find an observable action that will express the behavior indicated by the “ly”.

Show, don’t tell means that we must live inside our character’s minds and have them behave in ways that demonstrate their feelings and thoughts, their reactions to the situations in which we place them.  Above all we must make it possible for our readers to become involved in what’s happening in our stories, to be a part of our hero’s journey.

Buy Blair McDowell’s books today at The Memory of Roses Page and Abigail’s Christmas Page.

Abigail's Christmas was awarded Four Hearts by Sizzling Book Reviews!
"Abigail’s Christmas is a sweet and special story that honors both love and the holidays." 
Read the full review......

Watch for Blair’s newest book, Delighting in Your Company, to be released by Rebel Ink Press in March 2012.

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Blair McDowell