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Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby glorybee » Sat Oct 24, 2015 8:46 am

Anyone who’s been writing fiction for a while has surely run across the saying, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s pretty much self-explanatory: in many cases, it’s better to show your reader what’s going on than to tell her.

A few examples:

TELLING: Jan was feeling depressed; she didn’t want to go outside or see anyone.
SHOWING: Jan felt as if she was covered by a gray shroud; it wrapped her so tightly that it pressed her into her bed.

TELLING: Three-year-old Katelyn was so excited to be going to Disney World. She didn’t care that it was raining—she just wanted to hug Mickey.
SHOWING: Katelyn let go of her mother’s hand and jumped into a puddle, laughing. She’d have jumped a dozen more times, but when she glimpsed Mickey Mouse up ahead, she abandoned the puddle and ran into his arms.

I’m sure you’re seeing the difference here. The ‘telling’ examples do just that—they tell the reader what emotion the character is feeling. The ‘showing’ examples engage the reader more, because they require her to draw a few conclusions.

In the first example, I used a metaphor for Jan’s depression—the gray shroud. The color of the shroud and the fact that shrouds are used for dead bodies should suggest depression to the reader, and then the fact that Jan could not leave her bed should reinforce that suggestion.

In the second example, I left off Katelyn’s age (because ages aren’t inherently interesting reading) and showed it by the little girls’ actions: holding her mother’s hand, jumping in a puddle. A reader might imagine the little girl as a two-year-old or a five-year-old given that information, but unless it’s absolutely vital that she’s three, that’s fine.

Those of you who enter the Writing Challenge might be thinking that it’s easier to ‘tell’ than to ‘show’ when you’re limited to 750 words. Even the examples above seem to reinforce that notion—the ‘showing’ examples are considerably longer than the ‘telling’ ones. While it’s true that it often takes more words to show, that’s not always the case. Consider these two examples that I first used in another lesson:

TELLING: It was 1928, and old Wilma Connor was worried about the coming winter. She wasn’t sure that she had enough wood for the fireplace. She walked to the icebox in her kitchen. There was only one small piece of ham there, and nothing else.
SHOWING: Wilma put a stick of wood on her dying fire and looked at the tinderbox. Empty. She pulled a threadbare shawl around her bony shoulders and thought about the small chunk of ham in her icebox. When it was gone, what would she do?

Both selections have the same number of words, but the first one tells you that Wilma is old and poor, and even what year it is. The second selection allows you to see Wilma and to get inside her thoughts. You can deduce the other facts based on objects in the paragraph (her shawl, the icebox).

You may have noticed that all of my examples so far have dealt with the emotions of the characters. That’s where telling shows up the most, in my opinion, because English has so many words that name emotions. Is just so easy to use one of those words—this is one starting point for you to examine your own writing. Look for ‘emotion’ words and ask yourself, Can I show the reader this character’s emotion instead?

However, you can also fall into the ‘telling’ trap when describing non-emotional scenes.

TELLING: The house looked like a haunted house.
SHOWING: It looked as if bats might fly out of the attic windows.

It’s worth repeating, I think, that showing is often better than telling because it requires more investment in your reading on the part of the reader. When you show, you ask your reader to make inferences and to draw on her own experiences and knowledge, keeping her engaged in your writing.

For a contrasting view that suggests times when you should ‘tell, don’t show,’ check out this lesson.

HOMEWORK:

1. Re-write this mostly-telling paragraph so that it contains more showing.

Josie felt really happy when she was with Charlie. It was their third date, and she thought maybe he was the one for her. But she had second thoughts when he took her to a scary movie. Josie had never been so frightened in her life, and she hated every second they were in the theater.

(Don’t feel as if you need to stick super-close to the details above. Take the circumstances—a promising relationship, a trip to a scary movie—and write them in your voice, with an emphasis on showing.)

2. Look through your own writing and find an example of a sentence or a paragraph that contain too much telling. Re-write it, and (if you’re brave) share the before-and-after paragraphs here.

3. Make a comment or ask a question about ‘show, don’t tell.’
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby JudySauer » Mon Oct 26, 2015 6:20 pm

1. Josie was over-the-moon giddy about her third date with Charlie. After their second date, “He’s the one!” she gushed to her girlfriends. Much to Josie’s dismay, his movie choice was not romantic nor a comedy. Instead, it was a scary movie. He may have thought she would seek refuge in his arms, but instead it backfired big time. It only made Josie question their relationship. She hated every second, and asked, “Can we leave? I hate scary movies.”

2. BEFORE: “Well, thanks. I’ve seen many conflicts in my days. The Battle of Il Drang was the worst.” Flashbacks from 1965 consume his thoughts. “I was a paratrooper. I jumped into Vietnam for one of the deadliest conflict of the Vietnam War. The reminiscent smells of Napalm stings his nose. His eyes dart around as if he is on patrol for something. “Ya know, some guys come out of Vietnam and leave the war behind. Then there are those who leave Vietnam and the war never leaves them alone. I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. My name is Chuck,” and they shake hands.

AFTER: “Well, thanks. I’ve seen many conflicts in my days. The Battle of Il Drang was the worst. I was a paratrooper, and wound up in the deadliest conflicts of the Vietnam War.” Flashbacks from 1965 consumed his thoughts. The endless gun battles, the reminiscent smells of Napalm stinging his nose. His eyes watered so much that it hard to see. His eyes constantly on alert patrolling for danger. No time to sleep, eat, or use the latrine. “Ya know, some guys come out of Vietnam, and leave the war behind. Then there are those who leave Vietnam, and the war never leaves them alone. PTSD is real. Too bad it took so many decades after ‘Nam for it to be diagnosed a real condition. Many of my buddies might still be alive. Everyday, ‘Nam eats them alive. Too many ate their guns. I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess. My name is Chuck,” and they shake hands.

3. Comment or ask a question about ‘show, don’t tell.’
It takes considerably more time to show than tell. But in the end, showing through the character’s emotions and actions, the story isn’t flat like a piece of paper. It becomes like something out of a 3D printer where all sides are visible.
Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance. -Jude 2 NIV

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby glorybee » Mon Oct 26, 2015 7:42 pm

JudySauer wrote:1. Josie was over-the-moon giddy about her third date with Charlie. After their second date, “He’s the one!” she gushed to her girlfriends. Much to Josie’s dismay, his movie choice was not romantic nor a comedy. Instead, it was a scary movie. He may have thought she would seek refuge in his arms, but instead it backfired big time. It only made Josie question their relationship. She hated every second, and asked, “Can we leave? I hate scary movies.”


Judy, I wonder if you could take this even further into "showing." You still have three places (maybe more) where you name Josie's feelings:

...Josie was over-the-mood giddy...
...[she] question[ed] their relationship...
...she hated every second...

Could you express any of those emotions by instead of naming them, show us what Josie did? Or what her body did?

Josie's heart galloped...she tightened her eyes...she leaned away from him and pulled her hand from his grasp...she replayed previous disastrous dates in her mind and gave the trophy for Worst Date to this one...she fled to the restroom and called a cab from her cell phone...

I love what you had to say about the 3D printer!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby JudySauer » Mon Oct 26, 2015 8:51 pm

Thanks Jan for the added clarity.
I see what you mean. I have lots of room for improvement.
Judy
Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance. -Jude 2 NIV

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby kafrak » Mon Mar 14, 2016 7:04 pm

Show – Don’t Tell Homework Kathy Curry
HOMEWORK:

1. Re-write this mostly-telling paragraph so that it contains more showing.

Josie felt really happy when she was with Charlie. It was their third date, and she thought maybe he was the one for her. But she had second thoughts when he took her to a scary movie. Josie had never been so frightened in her life, and she hated every second they were in the theater.

(Don’t feel as if you need to stick super-close to the details above. Take the circumstances—a promising relationship, a trip to a scary movie—and write them in your voice, with an emphasis on showing.)

Jan began to look at Charlie with new eyes. She was beginning to see someone who was less caring, with a penchant for selfishness. As she watched him, the memories of the fear she had felt the other night washed over her like waves. They had gone to see a horror movie she had said she would rather skip. Her heart at been in her mouth and at one point, she had had to slip out into the lobby as she could watch no more.
Her father used to help her cope with the terror she felt when there were thunder and lightning storms. The movie had evoked something even deeper than.


2. Look through your own writing and find an example of a sentence or a paragraph that contain too much telling. Re-write it, and (if you’re brave) share the before-and-after paragraphs here.
SLAM! The metal door had finality about it. The metal around his wrists assured him that all this was real. He had gone to the Sheriff’s Office to pay the fees and fines for his conviction and had been arrested instead.

It was his third arrest, his first extended stay in jail. His clothes were an orange inmate suit. The other inmates were used to the system and hard men. The little bit of food they fed him was close to inedible, not nearly enough to satisfy his muscular six food frame. He would shiver his nights away as the thin blanket they had provided did nothing to keep him warm. To get food or other creature comforts, he needed money in his canteen account. His “friend” had split with the $300 he was going to use to pay the fine.
SLAM! The metal door had a finality about it that made the feel of the cold, unforgiving metal around his wrists and the orange jumpsuit that he now wore real. This was no dream, this was real. His throat closed, his stomach turned over.
His friend, the $300 he had brought to pay fines he had naively figured he owed were gone. His reality was here, in front of him and for all his bravado, it terrified him. Matthew Wyatt was not in a holding cell to be released in the morning, he was … IN JAIL.
The jailer led him to his cell briefly explained the rules and left him. It was well after dinner, so his rumbling stomach would have to wait until breakfast. He was free to roam the pod until lights out. He got into one corner of his bund and watched what he could see of the pod.
An inmate walked by and stared at him, called out, “Hey Vinnie, we got some new meat!” He then grinned showing yellowed broken teach with signs of the black rot indicative of Meth-amphetamine use. Matthew was actually relieved when his cell door was closed and locked.


3. Make a comment or ask a question about ‘show, don’t tell.’
As I read through most of what I have written, it is all telling. I had not realized it. In this piece, I took a 2000 word work down to 750. The problem was still there, just intensified trying to get it down to the limit. I really need some help on this!

Thank you for doing this for all of us! :D

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby glorybee » Mon Mar 14, 2016 8:59 pm

kafrak wrote:
Jan began to look at Charlie with new eyes. She was beginning to see someone who was less caring, with a penchant for selfishness. As she watched him, the memories of the fear she had felt the other night washed over her like waves. They had gone to see a horror movie she had said she would rather skip. Her heart at been in her mouth and at one point, she had had to slip out into the lobby as she could watch no more.
Her father used to help her cope with the terror she felt when there were thunder and lightning storms. The movie had evoked something even deeper than.


This is much, much better than my all-telling paragraph! I wonder if you meant to end it that way, though, or if maybe you accidentally chopped it off too soon. It's kind of awkward to end a sentence with 'than.'


kafrak wrote:SLAM! The metal door had a finality about it that made the feel of the cold, unforgiving metal around his wrists and the orange jumpsuit that he now wore real. This was no dream, this was real. His throat closed, his stomach turned over.
His friend, the $300 he had brought to pay fines he had naively figured he owed were gone. His reality was here, in front of him and for all his bravado, it terrified him. Matthew Wyatt was not in a holding cell to be released in the morning, he was … IN JAIL.
The jailer led him to his cell briefly explained the rules and left him. It was well after dinner, so his rumbling stomach would have to wait until breakfast. He was free to roam the pod until lights out. He got into one corner of his bund and watched what he could see of the pod.
An inmate walked by and stared at him, called out, “Hey Vinnie, we got some new meat!” He then grinned showing yellowed broken teach with signs of the black rot indicative of Meth-amphetamine use. Matthew was actually relieved when his cell door was closed and locked.


This is generally better...but take a look at your last sentence. Instead of writing that

Matthew was actually relieved when his cell door was closed and locked.

could you write something like

The cell door slammed shut and there was the clang of activating locks. Matthew sat hard on his bunk, breathing deeply for the first time that day.

The place where I see 'telling' more than 'showing' most often is in the writing of emotions.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby hwnj » Sat Mar 19, 2016 12:15 am

Joan floated through the door, slipping her hand in to Chuck's arm. It was just a few blocks walk to the theater. The twinkling stars augmented the memories of their first two dates. She did a double-take, though, when he purchased tickets for "Jaws." If she could just stay focused on the extra large popcorn he bought, she thought she might make it through. She certainly wasn't going to be manipulated in to seeking refuge in this enigma's arms. Within five minutes, she found the popcorn crumbling in her hand, and the bits that did actualy arrive in her stomach met waves of nausea. She excused herself to the ladies' room, tapped the icon for her favorite ride sharing service, and blocked Chuck's number.

If all my homework in school had been this much fun, I would have completed more of it. :D
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"In order to realize the worth of the anchor, one needs to feel the stress of the storm." Daily Encouragement Net (Stephen & Brooksyne Weber)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby glorybee » Sat Mar 19, 2016 12:04 pm

hwnj wrote:Joan floated through the door, slipping her hand in to Chuck's arm. It was just a few blocks walk to the theater. The twinkling stars augmented the memories of their first two dates. She did a double-take, though, when he purchased tickets for "Jaws." If she could just stay focused on the extra large popcorn he bought, she thought she might make it through. She certainly wasn't going to be manipulated in to seeking refuge in this enigma's arms. Within five minutes, she found the popcorn crumbling in her hand, and the bits that did actualy arrive in her stomach met waves of nausea. She excused herself to the ladies' room, tapped the icon for her favorite ride sharing service, and blocked Chuck's number.

If all my homework in school had been this much fun, I would have completed more of it. :D


Thanks, Holly.

This is precisely what good 'showing' looks like. Well done!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby cgpeoples » Thu May 12, 2016 11:33 am

HOMEWORK - Rewrite of paragraph - show don't tell

Josie felt like Cinderella when Charlie grasp both her hands and helped her out of the car. They walked arm in arm to the ticket window of the movie theater.

"Two for Crimson Peak, please," he said.

Josie froze at his side. A panic stricken frown replaced her previous euphoric smile. "Oh, no," she thought. "Doesn't he know me well enough by now to realize horror shows cause me to have nightmares that linger on for days?"

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SHOW, DON'T TELL

Postby glorybee » Thu May 12, 2016 1:14 pm

cgpeoples wrote:HOMEWORK - Rewrite of paragraph - show don't tell

Josie felt like Cinderella when Charlie grasp both her hands and helped her out of the car. They walked arm in arm to the ticket window of the movie theater.

"Two for Crimson Peak, please," he said.

Josie froze at his side. A panic stricken frown replaced her previous euphoric smile. "Oh, no," she thought. "Doesn't he know me well enough by now to realize horror shows cause me to have nightmares that linger on for days?"


This is a vast improvement over the 'telling' sample that I wrote. Thanks for putting in the effort!
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