Sunday, March 28, 2010

Self-Editing: Part 9

(This series begins with Part 1.)

IX. Showing vs. Telling

Many writers have trouble with this notion of showing instead of telling. We may fall into the trap of telling because it's easier to do. It's easy to write: "She was angry." It's harder, and it takes longer, it takes many more words, to write a scene that shows her anger, a scene in which the reader sees her shouting, ranting, bouncing off the walls, throwing things.

This is telling: "They held up the store. Then they escaped in the car. They were chased by the police. They eventually outran the police. They spent the night in a cave."

Each of those sentences could be developed into a fully realized scene that shows what's happening. Instead of 30 words of telling, you might need several chapters to show all of those scenes.

Of course you can't show everything. To keep the pace up, and simply to keep the manuscript to a workable length, you have to tell some parts of the story.

How do you decide what to tell and what to show? A good way to think of the relationship between these two techniques is to think of scene and sequel, or peaks and valleys. You show the scene -- the peak -- then tell during the sequel, or valley.

The scenes, or peaks, are the moments when emotions run high, when action abounds, when your characters are engaged. The sequels or valleys are the less dramatic moments, when it's OK to move your characters along in the story without dramatizing each step of their journey.

Even when you're telling, though, don't write in generalities. Use specific details. Here's an example from B.J. Stone's book, Girl on the Bluff:

"Months went by and I helped in the store." If B.J. had stopped there, we wouldn't have the full picture. But she went on to flesh that out with specifics:

"I put up bags of coffee and tobacco. I handed the soldiers their brass polish when they came in wanting to spruce up for a party or inspection. I swept the dirt floor clean as I could with a straw broom."

The sentence about handing brass polish to the soldiers could have been dramatized and turned into a full-fledged scene. But it wasn't a moment of high emotion or exciting action, so B.J. did it justice in the telling, with no need to show, but with crisp details that convey information.

If this concept seems slippery to you, as it does to many of us, I highly recommend the chapter on "Showing Versus Telling" in Noah Lukeman's book, The First Five Pages. He gives some great examples and talks about stating facts as opposed to telling. They are not the same thing.

When a writer tells us something, the writer may be directing us to a particular conclusion. But when the writer just states facts (and here I mean "facts" in the context of the story you're telling, the reality of the world where your story takes places), we readers are allowed to draw our own conclusions from those facts.

(This ties in with adverbs and adjectives that tell, as opposed to precise nouns and vigorous verbs that show. For more about this idea, see my earlier post on Adjectives and Adverbs.)

The examples in Lukeman's book will get you thinking about different techniques that you may have overlooked.

"When you show instead of tell, where you used to have description you will now have a scene." --Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

"Don't say the old lady screamed ... bring her on and let her scream." --Mark Twain

Next post: Part 10

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