If you love to write and have taken a creative writing class, (I sure hope you’ve taken a writing class or three) you’ve heard the adage that a writer must show, not tell, a story. If you don’t know exactly what it means, you’re not alone. Confusion reigns on this topic because what seems obvious is difficult to describe without citing your second grade short story efforts and flapping your arms like an ostrich straining for flight. None of us wrote well in second grade so our loopy efforts are always good for embarrassing examples. As for the ostrich – great feathers, never gonna fly.
Your writing teacher probably threw the maxim at you until it became a paper sword, “You’ll know it when you see it.” It meant reading the best literature written in English: Twain, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Austen, Stegner, and their ilk. Blessed with professors intent on introducing you to excellent writers, you learned to read, even to riding shotgun for younger readers and writers. You know good writing now, but you still might not know how to do it, because that requires two specific tasks: practicing the art of writing, and seeing examples of what doesn’t work in order to contrast it with what does.
Many people think dialogue is the yellow brick road to avoiding telling pitfalls, but it’s not only not a guarantee, as dialogue has its own arena of skill to master, it fails to cite other strategies to successful showing. I’m going to identify four other writing markers to help you understand how telling differs from showing. You’ll forgive me, please, for not being Hemingway, but I charge less. The examples are my own, and while less worthy of literary attention than Ernest, they’ll suffice for this purpose. The tell passage comes first; the second follows with its swagger of BMOC – yep, all show, that one.
Details reveal you know exactly what you’re writing about because no one wants their accountant to fix the car.
T: I was a rebellious kid at home. (Yeah, whadija do, kid?)
S: Walking the long route through woods garbed in brittle gold, I grabbed a whirligig seed dropped from a maple tree and stuck it to my nose, my new proboscis declaring my alien status, and strode into the house two hours late, defiant of mom’s rule to get straight home from school. (Hoo-whee, you’re in big trouble now, kid.)
Emotions make your reader sympathetic to your character’s plight, so make your reader cry, laugh, scream, fight for justice for the protagonist – or demand the death penalty for the evil anti-hero.
T: Kate’s husband made her so mad. (Um, hubbies are like that.)
S: Kate trudged into the house to see Tom slouched in his recliner, an open beer can on the table, an empty strewn on the floor, ripping the fringes off her favorite leather jacket and lobbing them into the fireplace. (I’d be out the door to hire a divorce lawyer before my spit could hit the floor if my hubby did that.)
Great writing exposes the whole of the universe in minute detail.
(I’m going to break my formula here and quote a published sentence for the S. You’ll see why when you read it below.)
T: When she died, Daniel was heartbroken. (Doesn’t make me feel Daniel’s pain because it doesn’t remind me of my own.)
S: “When she was dead not a week later…Daniel learned that the dead take with them not only what we love in them but also what they love in us.” From The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer, Henry Holt and Company, 2010. (The sentence melted me and compelled me to read late into the night. I wasn’t disappointed at the loss of sleep, as Winer’s story is consistently excellent.)
Write revealing information about your character so the reader really gets to know the stranger in her house.
T: Phil was extremely tall and wore his dark brown hair in a perfect cut. (So he’s good looking, but what kind of man is he?)
S: Phil leaned against the fence railing, elbows poking behind like lazy flags, and watched till the horse wore herself out, then sauntered over and stood near without looking her in the eye. She flicked her mane and pawed the dirt as if trying out new ballet shoes. He paced the edge of the fence, letting the mare follow at her own speed. She nuzzled his shoulder but he ignored her. He ambled along the fence line, barely scuffing up a dust trail, and finally dropped his hand backward, palm open. She nibbled his fingers as if tasting the salt, and whickered softly, an equine invitation to make friends. (Have no clue what Phil looks like, but I’d like to meet a man who can calm a skittish horse without hurting her.)
Telling sometimes works better – yeah, it might.
T: Jenny had made pancakes with her mom. (Make ‘em once, you know the drill, and please don’t use clumsy pluperfect tense.)
S: Jenny ransacked three shelves of canned pinto beans, tuna fish, strawberry jelly jars, Ritz cracker boxes, and bags of dried noodles stashed in the cupboard but didn’t find the flour till she searched the back of the fridge and spotted a half empty white paper bag rolled up against the side of last night’s hamburger casserole. Dragging it out meant shifting the open can of condensed milk that Gramps poured into his coffee every morning. She splattered a hefty dollop of it all over the shelf and grabbed the rag from the sink to mop up the mess. The flour still huddled at the back of the fridge. She shoved two wrinkled apples out of the way and yanked a carton of sour milk laid on its side because at least a dozen wine bottles filled the tall shelves. (The kitchen’s such a mess, how’s she going to make anything to eat in there that won’t give ‘em all ptomaine poisoning?)
What’s wrong with the second paragraph? Nothing, except the lengthy description of trying to get the bag of flour to make pancakes, and I haven’t yet written about locating an empty bowl, scrubbing dried egg off the mixing spoon, or greasing the griddle. Making breakfast, however, is only the springboard to Jenny talking with Mom about the fact that the 15-year-old is pregnant. It would work if I wanted to show the anxious teen delaying the awful conversation as long as possible. This is where a writer must make a decision: bore the reader with infinite description of a mundane activity, or get to the damn point already and sink your writing chops into an event important to the story. (This time, choose tell but write it in simple past tense: Jenny made pancakes with her mom. Now get on with the rest.)
Telling provides information while showing makes the reader feel and relate. One is as useful as an almanac, the other as exciting as leaping over waterfalls. An almanac can hold your attention while waiting for dinner to heat in the microwave, but a waterfall will make you forget you were hungry. Now go practice writing.