When to Show and When to Tell

It’s not even Thanksgiving and already my plate has too much on it. Metaphorical plate that is. I have so many different blog posts I want to put up, homework to catch up on, regular work, house work, Thanksgiving stuff, the list goes on… HOWEVER, if you keep reading this post I do have an awesome (kind of long) entry on description and showing vs telling in fiction.

So have I been writing? HA!

I wish.

And while this won’t be a lengthy post I did find this that helps me through the days…

I will post here the paper I just wrote on description for my tutorial class online. I hope it helps some of you. It’s a bit on the long side but it includes awesome info that will help if you have issues with showing vs telling, some exercises and just a few tips. So, enjoy…
The Description Dilemma: When To Show and When To Tell
            Description is not my strongest suit. I’ve never really found the right balance of words and have a really hard time avoiding clichés. But what writer doesn’t in a first draft? I’m also haunted by the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” I hear it in every workshop several times. And that’s not a bad thing. It can be great advice. However, it can be really overwhelming advice as well.  What does that even mean? Sure, I understand the words and their application, but I have a really hard time figuring out how to apply it to my story. If you show everything then your short story will be about as long as the last Harry Potter book. That’s intense! Obviously critiquers aren’t really telling you that. They are saying, “I would like more detail. What you have is simply not enough. Don’t tell me something, let me see it.” However, there are times when showing can be just as bad as telling. As writers we need a balance.
            Before we really delve into the presentation I want to make sure that we all know what description is. Chris Lombardi in her chapter in Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction cites Webster’s New World Dictionary to define the verb describe. It offers these two definitions:
1.     to tell or write about; give a detailed account of
2.     to picture in words (105).
I think as writers that is what we strive for, to give our reader a vivid picture given to them via the media of words. Right, and to do that we know (or will know by the end of this presentation) that we need to do this by showing and telling.
            Now we have a good solid idea of description we need to tackle the difference of showing and telling. And really, it’s very simple. Monica Wood in Elements of Fiction Writing: Description explains that “ ‘showing’ is generally thought of as using vivid details and engaging the senses, therefore painting a bright descriptive picture for the readers [and] ‘telling’ is generally thought of as the absence of vivid detail – uninspired narrative that serves only to explain what is going on in the story” (18). Which is a misconception, you can make telling very vivid if you use the right words, but more on that later. In the most basic sense showing is scene and telling is narrative. You may be thinking, “Great, now what does that mean?” And I’ll tell you. According to Wood, “Scene serves a specific purpose; it usually contains dialogue; it has a beginning, middle, and end; and it moves the story forward. Narrative is the flow of prose – the string of sentences and paragraphs – that tell the story” (21). So now the importance of balancing showing and telling is (hopefully) becoming to become clearer. It’s hard to have a story that is all scene and no narrative and vice versa.
            HOW TO TELL: I suppose that since I’m told very often to “show not tell” then telling would be the easy part. Sure. It’s easy to say something like: “Rover walked across the yard.” That is telling. However, you can dress your telling up so that no one really notices that you’re telling them something. Such as “Rover pranced across the yard” or even “Rover sulked across the yard.” See that? The verbs are so dazzling that in your telling, you are giving the reader even more, you are giving them Rover’s emotion. And you can do even more with telling: “Rover sulked across the yard, his tail tucked between his legs and shadow growing long behind him. In the human’s house, his master stood over the shattered vase, hands on hips shaking his head.” Look at all that telling. We see that the dog is sad (by the verb we use for walking and by his tail), that it’s later in the day (because of the shadow) and that his master is exasperated but not super angry at Rover (based on the body language). See how we dressed the telling up to make it look like showing? Here’s when having a great vocabulary comes in handy. The more you make the verbs work the better the telling will be.
            HOW TO SHOW: Here is where things tend to get tricky for me. I know you all have read parts of my WIP, Breaking Through, where I’ll say something like “Mac was acting weird.” Straight up telling. This is when I need to show. But another trick of showing, which is just as important, is knowing when not to show. For instance, Liam’s love of his tea does not need to be shown to the reader in epic detail. I don’t need to show the readers him sniffing the steam rising up out of the cup of tea and him quivering in delight. That has no importance in the story what so ever. HOWEVER, Mackenzie’s sudden shift of character, her “acting weird” is a MAJOR part of the story. You all want to see the scene where Brea notices her acting weird. See? One that needs to be shown and the other that doesn’t. Is this a first draft worry? No. Which is something that I believe is really important to keep in mind. You don’t know what’s more important in the story yet (Liam’s tea and Mackenzie’s behavior are extremes) but you will know by the second or third draft.
            I always like examples.
            Here’s a fantastic one…
The day after they moved in, Coraline went exploring.
            She explored the garden. It was a big garden: at the very back was an old tennis court, but no one in the house played tennis and the fence around the court had holes in it and the net had mostly rotted away; there was an old rose garden, filled with stunted, flyblown rosebushes; there was a rockery that was all rocks; there was a fairy ring, made of squidgy brown toadstools which smelled dreadful if you accidentally trod on them.
            There was also a well. On the first day Coraline’s family moved in, Miss Spink and Miss Forcible made a point of telling Coraline how dangerous the well was, and they warned her to be sure she kept way from it properly.
            She found it on the third day, in an overgrown meadow beside the tennis court, behind a clump of trees – a low brick circle almost hidden in the high grass. The well had been covered up by wooden boards, to stop anyone falling in. There was a small knothole in one of the boards, and Coraline spent an afternoon dropping pebbles and acorns through the hole and waiting, and counting, until she heard the plop as they hit the water far below. (Gaiman 4-5)
Yes, I borrowed this passage from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. He is just fantastic in my book. And this passage does a fantastic job of giving us examples of telling and showing (although I know that this is all narrative and not really scene – I think it still does a good job of showing the two.) First the telling. We are told about the garden. Sure, we get to see some of it, but mostly it is a pretty broad description – “old tennis court” and “big garden”. But we are also shown some aspects about Coraline. From this passage we learn how stubborn she is. She takes not one, not two, but three days of looking to find the well. The well that is behind the tennis court and behind a clump of trees covered up in boards. See? We have a  balance of showing and telling – not at all boring, and descriptive in all the right places. Like the well; the well that is critical at the end of the book. So it’s good we get a great picture of words on it so early in the novel.    
            Lastly I have a few tricks and traps of description to share – the kind that when you do need to tell (or show) will make it either pop and crackle or fizzle and die.
            TRICKS: Chris Lombardi references one of my favorite quotes of all time; “Mark Twain once noted that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug” (118). So obviously word choice is a big trick. And how do you make sure you know you have the right word and not the almost right word? You expand your vocabulary. You make sure you know the difference between crisp apple red and blood red. You make sure you have a plethora of hardcore verbs and nouns to pull from. Adjectives and adverbs are those kinds of things where less can be more. The better and more powerful your verbs and nouns are the less you need to depend on the modifiers. Lombardi makes the point that “she walked lightly can effectively be transformed into she glided or she floated, each more evocative than the version leaning on the adverb” (113). Another trick: amp up those sensory details. Like in the Coraline example: “squidgy brown toadstools which smelled dreadful if you accidentally trod on them.” And then there are several tricks us fiction writers can pull from poetry. Let’s take over some of those fancy tricks they use; the figurative language – the metaphors and similes; lyricism – the “prose that plays with sound and rhythm in the way that poetry does” (115); and synesthesia – the trick where you use “an image or adjective usually associated with one sense unexpectedly with another” (117). An example of the last one (because I needed one) comes from John Keats (via Lombardi): “Taste the music of the vision pale…” (117).  Tada! All those tricks can make your narrative sizzle and fizzle and your showing crackle and pop.
            Now some pesky TRAPS to look out for…
            Clichés. I am guilty of using them more than I should, but yes. Clichés make for lazy writers. For instance, “skin as pale as snow” or “hands as cold as ice.” We’ve been there and done that. What makes for fun description are the hands that are frozen from a kiss from Jack Frost. Also, watch out for vagueness and imprecise language. Lombardi talks about how she used to use “grey eyes” a lot. Then one day she realized that “grey eyes” was a lazy way of goging about it. Instead aim for “slate grey eyes” or even “eyes that could rival the storm clouds” (maybe a bit cliché but we’ve moved on from that…). Last trap to watch out for are those mixed metaphors. The best one that Lombardi references is “He felt like a punching bag without air” (121); punching bags don’t have air. So with sentences like that you not only annoy your readers but loose credibility with them. Another way to use mixed metaphors is have a character run fast as a horse but also has the grace of a swan. Are they like a horse or a swan? It’s confusing.
            Bottom line: there are tricks that can amp up your showing or telling and traps that can make them even worse. The important thing to know is that there is a fine balance between showing and telling. So, even though “SHOW DON’T TELL” is rookie advice (according to both Lombardi and Wood) it’s worth listening to. If your readers are wanting more, then more likely than not it’s important to them and important to the story, but only you know where to draw the line.
EXERCISES:
One: Describe a character who is going abut the mundane job of cleaning their home. Write it from the POV of this character (either first, second, or third person), which means the character’s consciousness will inform the description. Here’s the twist: the character has just recently fallen in love, and you should let this emotion color the description without it being directly stated. Then rewrite the passage, but this time the character has just had a painful romantic breakup. (Lombardi 124).
Two: “Complete the following similes and strive for specific details and tight, lyrical language in your comparisons […] try to resist the temptation of comparing a sound with a sound, a taste with a taste, a sent with a sent.
·      The morning sun tastes like:
·      Her voice smelled like:
·      The music sounded heavy as:
·      The color green feels like:
·      The color red tastes like:
·      Midnight rain is bitter as:
·      The wind looks as _______ as:
·      Seeing him walk was like hearing:
·      Tasting the night’s dinner was like watching:
·      Hearing her cry was like tasting:
·      Smelling the gasoline was like touching:
·      Touching her dying father’s hand was like seeing:”
(Now Write! 193)
Works Cited
Ellis, Sherry. Ed. Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writer’s and Teachers. New York: Penguin. 2006. Print.
Gaiman, Neil. Coraline. New York: Scholastic. 2002. Print.
Gotham Writer’s Workshop. Writing Fiction – The Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School. New York: Bloomsbury. 2003. Print.

Wood, Monica. “Chapter Two: Showing and Telling.” Elements of Fiction Writing: Description. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. 1995. Print.

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