Friday, April 29, 2011

Show and Tell - Not for Kindergartners

No, this show and tell is for writers, and it's not quite show AND tell, but show DON'T tell.

I found a wonderful FB fan page today called The Creative Penn, and by coincidence, she too talked about Showing vs Telling in her latest note, calling it POV intrusion, which I suppose, it is. Annette Lyon, I discovered, is also a best selling author as well as an editor. Quite a find, and as such, she is worth keeping an eye on and seeing if we can learn a thing or two. I'm always trying to keep an eye pealed for something new to learn.

Showing rather then telling is like reading a cartoon without any of the text explaining what's going on in the picture. Dialogue is seldom enough, though sometimes it can help.

Lord Percival had a great time while out hawking. He caught three rabbits and a sparrow. He was furious about the sparrow. He punished his squire for the pointless kill.

What did you think about that? Kind of distant, wasn't it. You could easily close the magazine and forget the scene. It wasn't all that interesting after all.

Try this:
Lord Percival watched enthralled as his hawk dived after it's fourth kill. When it turned out to be nothing but a sparrow, he was enraged. In a frothing fury, he turned on his squire, who cowered away in fear. The riding crop landed a full dozen times, pounding the squire all the way to the ground before stopping. The lord was spent. Breathing hard, he said, "Get my bird. The hunt is spoiled." And when the squire cowered a moment longer, Lord Percival raised his hand to strike again. The squire scurried to do his master's bidding.

What do you think of that scene? A bit more gripping. Not bad for a spur-of-the-moment example.

You need to get under your character's skin, feel his or her deepest emotions, experience his or her agonies and elations. You need to walk in his shoes, wear his coat, comb his hair, feel the itch between his shoulders.

There's another difference between the two examples I gave above - can you find it? There's action - motion - movement. It is vital to the life of your story that action of some sort is constant. Someone or something is always in motion. Motion attracts the attention of any spectator, even that of a reader. If no one is moving, boredom sets in quickly, even if the dialogue is good.

Have you ever watched someone talk? Always there is something moving. A girl might clasp her hands and sway a bit, flirting, fluttering her eyes and smiling. A boy might scuff the ground, embarrassed about the attention. He might shove his hands in his pockets and push his shoulders up by straightening his elbows. I'm sure you've heard or seen someone who's hands are constantly in motion; it's common, don't be afraid to use such things. And most importantly, don't forget to keep using it once you've introduced it.

If Bob is constantly tugging at his beard, make sure he keeps tugging at it, even after he shaves - habits are hard to break.

If Jane chews her nails, she won't suddenly have long nails in the next chapter.

If you need to, it's not a bad idea to keep a list of your characters and their various details. I keep one - it also helps me remember how I spelled their names, and it helps make sure I don't name my characters too similarly. I recently read a book where the only difference between the name of the female secondary character and the main character's mother was a single letter. I finally looked the names up on line and discovered that the single letter difference affected the pronouncement of the name, but while reading, I didn't know that, and since both names were in rather frequent use, it was confusing and distracting trying to watch for the spelling in order to tell who was talking about which character. But I digress.

Showing vs Telling: What pointers can you give?


Roy Durham said...

like this it helps i am still trying to get this all to work in my writing , keep the tips coming, going to take a longer look at this and see what i can do. thank you , and god bless

Jacqui said...

Show not tell is one of those words of wisdom I didn't understand till I really understood it. Narrative gets boring; action doesn't. How did I go so many years not getting something so simple.


Anna L. Walls said...

It's simple, Jacqui. Explaining something comes to mind first. What do we see? What is our character doing? Explaining that it what we think of first. Showing with words is a skill we need to learn.