How to show, not tell

Back in June, I attended a NEWC writing workshop called ‘Kiss and Kill’, presented by Australian crime author, Bronwyn Parry (who writes romantic suspense novels).

For the workshop, we needed to bring along a crime-related short or novel, so I decided to bring along my WIP, a crime novel about a struggling writer called Violet Brown who is jealous of her famous author brother, Simon, who writes a popular crime fiction series recently hijacked by a real-life serial killer.

At one point during the workshop, we were given a small writing exercise. When we were done, Parry asked if we would like to read our work to the group. Despite being nervous, I jumped at the chance to have a seasoned professional point out my mistakes. Because hey, we only live once! And I could always go find a nice rock to live under afterwards.

After reading my piece, Parry told me I ‘needed to go deeper’. I didn’t quite understand what she meant, so she gave me a few examples of how she would reword my sentences. I wrote down her edits and updated my paragraph.

Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning.

Okay, that’s a lie. It dawned on me, slowly.

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Up until that moment I had been committing the biggest writing faux pas of all. The one I thought I had long since ditched in my past and left behind in a flurry of dust.

And no, it’s not the adverb rule.

I was telling, not showing.

I’ve always known I had a problem describing scenes, but this was the first time I could really see what I was doing wrong. I was blown away, to be honest. I can’t thank Parry enough for showing me the light.

What I learned from Parry is that while there are the obvious ‘tells’ you need to avoid, like: ‘she started to walk over to him’ ‘she looked’, ‘she felt’, there are also plenty of other less obvious ways we ‘tell’ that we might not even be aware of. For example, I had been using the word ‘was’ in almost every single sentence!

This realisation has changed my world – I even think my brain may have been re-wired! I can no longer read my past novels without shuddering in horror whenever I spy the words ‘started’, ‘was’, ‘looked’ or ‘felt’. My novels are littered with them. There is no escape.

I’ve always been anti-rules, adamant that the only way to become a ‘good writer’ was through the very act of writing itself. While I still subscribe to this view, it’s clear, almost one million words down, that soaking in a few writing rules every now and then could be exactly what my writing needs to improve (a.k.a Stephen King’s adverb rule from On Writing).

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Here is my own example of telling v showing:

Telling: Violet, trembling in fear, watched as Peter was tackled to the ground by Jack. The gun went flying and landed at Violet’s feet. With shaking hands, she reached down for the gun. She’d never used a gun before, but if she wanted to save Jack, she would have to use it.

Showing:  Jack tackled Peter from behind and they tumbled to the ground. The pair struggled, fumbling for the gun. Jack, taller and heavier, had the upper hand and pushed the gun away from Peter’s grasping fingers. It glided over the smooth, marble surface and came to rest at Violet’s feet. She crouched down and brushed her fingertips over the cold, black surface of the barrel. On the other side of the room, Jack groaned. The tables had turned and Peter now had him in a headlock.

Violet took a deep breath and wrapped her fingers around the handle of the gun and brought it to her chest, her index finger hovering near the trigger. Jack and Peter were a moving tangle of arms and legs. What if she hit Jack? What if she killed him?

‘Vi. Hurry.’ Jack said, his voice a strained whisper.

Violet closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.

Okay, so that’s not the best example (and who the hell would close their eyes before pulling the trigger of a gun??), but I’m still figuring out this whole ‘show don’t tell’ thing. It might be another 100,000 words before I get the hang of it!

But as they say, practice (plus a few writing rules) makes perfect, right?

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31 thoughts

  1. I wonder sometimes if it all comes down to how we were raised. We’re usually cautious when it comes to asking a person to much about themselves. We’re polite and use proper manners. Maybe those qualities we were raised with come out in our writing. A part of our mind reminds us we’re being rude by getting to personal with our characters.

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  2. This is a great post, and I have to say that I sometimes struggle with showing versus telling. I try my best to show with words, because it definitely makes a better reading experience.

    It makes the story feel less of a very long narrative.

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  3. Another amazing post. I do this myself. With each of your articles I read I learn something new, New ways to improve my writing. Thank-you so much.

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  4. I’ve always thought that telling was narration without dialogue or details and showing would be an actual scene. For example, I could rewrite the latest chapter of my book like this:

    “He wandered around the forest and was attacked by a big black cat, but at the last moment a strange girl saved him by making him so small that he was invisible, and they went into the tree where she lived.”

    Now that’s an extreme example, since I just took a 1600 word chapter and turned it into one long sentence, but that’s basically how I look at it.

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    1. May I suggest that, for me to visualize what you had in mind, you consider the following:
      “He wandered around the forest ( describe the forest, dense firs perhaps) and was attacked by a big (what is big) black cat (showing its teeth, hissing, spitting), but at the last moment a strange (what made her strange) girl saved him by making him so small that he was invisible (small is not automatically invisible so a perspective would be nice), and they went into the tree (a magic tree perhaps) where she lived.”

      Please understand that I am not being critical, but whenever I read fiction, I need details which will help create mental images.
      JRR Tolkein does a wonderful job of describing, such that my imagination has no problems!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post! I find myself to be an okay writer, BUT I definitely do more telling than showing which does make for a more stagnant, boring story. I think your version of showing is fantastic! And honestly, closing her eyes before pulling the trigger made my heart jump a little. I like that detail. Makes me want to know where the bullet ended up! More more more!

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  6. I recently attended Rockingham writers convention and a talk by best selling author Natasha Lester on Show Not Tell, a concept that I have always struggled with. I’ve blogged about her method in my post Grab Those Coloured Pencils and Improve Your Writing. I also shared it with my writing group and few people have said it clarified the concept for them.

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    1. Try this:
      Tell the story – The cat sat on the mat.
      Show the story – The ginger and white tomcat slowly walked over to the mat, and inwardly smiled as he gently eased himself down to sit right in the centre of it.
      Simple … but does that help?

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  7. I’ve heard the “show, don’t tell” before. And while I can understand how it works with an example by literarylad, I don’t clearly see it in your piece. To me, it just seems like there is a bit more description in the second part. It might be more engaging for some, but those are different things from “showing vs telling”.

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  8. Milly, it’s interesting that for the ‘showing’ example you’ve written a lot more than for the ‘telling’. Also, I’m not so sure the ‘telling’ really is ‘telling’, any more than the ‘showing’. For instance, you’ve got Violet watching as Jack tackles Peter, versus Jack tackles Peter – is one more ‘telling’ and the other ‘showing’? I would say that both examples are ‘narrative’, in that they describe what is happening (the only difference being that in the shorter, first example, you impart the extra information, that Violet is there too, and watching the action.)
    ‘Violet had never used a gun before, but if she wanted to save Jack, she would have to use it’, is an example of ‘telling’, but I would point out that it does at least impart extra (important?) information – in the second example we don’t know that Violet has never used a gun before. Incidentally, from a style perspective, rather repeating the word used/use, you could say ‘Violet had never fired a gun before, but if she wanted to save Jack, she’d have to use it’.
    The classic example of ‘telling’ versus showing is ‘Violet was very angry’ as opposed to ‘Violet banged her fist on the table’.
    Personally ,I don’t think you’ve any reason to cringe over the way you write. ‘Telling’ is underrated, in that sometimes it’s the best way to give the reader an idea of a character’s emotional state, where trying to ‘show’ how a character feels can become clumsy or even impossible.
    Established writers, editors, and publishers are often very sure of themselves, and that their way is the right way, but I think we should always be prepared to question this. I always say that as writers, we are called ‘storytellers’, and not ‘storyshowers’ (unless we’re writing a screenplay).
    In short, don’t be so prepared to let other people tell you how to write (and that includes me!)
    Happy writing! Graham

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  9. Hey Milly! This post gave me an insight to my mistakes. Show don’t tell is one very difficult concept to master. Your example helped me to identify mine. Thank you for such a wonderful and informative post. Do continue to share your literary experiences and can’t wait for the part 4 of your short story: The One Left Behind…. Cheerio

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  10. I had a similar discussion recently with another author and, while I am no expert, I thought her stories lacked detail. Further discussion revealed a very simple explanation. She was writing directly from what she “saw” in her creative mind …. but the reader does not know what she “saw” in her creative mind. Expanding on circumstances and more diligent use of descriptive words made a huge difference.

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  11. Great post, Milly. A beta recently told me the same thing about my book, so I can totally relate to the whole shuddering in horror at your work thing. Once you get what show, don’t tell is, you can’t unsee it. This helps with the rewrites but crushes your soul a little too. Good luck with your changes. I’ve just spend the last 6 weeks incorporating showing into my book. It was hard but worth it.

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