To Tell, or Not to Tell, That is the Question
edited: Monday, December 25, 2006
By Sheri L. McGathy
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002
Become a Fan
View this Article
Learning As We Go
by Sheri L. McGathy and Jeanne Allen
Show, Don't Tell
Fantasy author Sheri McGathy and I met shortly after our first novels were published. We've since been emailing each other to discuss, among other things, the ins and outs of the publishing world, and we've fallen into the habit of critiquing each others' work. In the process, we mull over writing rules we come across in how-to books and on the World Wide Web.
"We're supposed to do what?" would be a typical first response by one of us. And the other would say, "Don't look at me. I'm just reporting what I read by this famous author." We'd weigh the pros and cons, then try to incorporate our newfound rule into our writing. If this is what commercially successful writers of fiction recommend, then who are we to question what works? Aye, but there's the rub. Question we do, and we do so thoroughly.
We dig for examples in established literature. We ask for advice from other friends in the writing world and have found that not all writing rules are carved into stone slabs. We strive to learn the rules, but we reserve the right to refuse to abide by certain ones at certain times. Why? Because we've also learned that once we know a rule, we're allowed to break it if we think it best for our works.
Most surprisingly, what has happened since we began corresponding is that we feel ourselves growing as writers. We wanted to capture this growth experience in a series of articles called Learning As We Go. Most of these articles stem from our informal conversations on writing. We may or may not agree with established rules or even with each other. And we don't consider ourselves experts in writing fiction, by any means. Some of our articles may end with question marks. We are learning and probably always will consider ourselves to be students of writing. We may get a little nutty in our examples. But there is one thing of which we are certain: We are experts in stating our opinions!
We welcome any constructive feedback to our articles.
Jeanne Allen and Sheri L. McGathy
"To Tell or Not to Tell, That Is the Question"
"Show, don't tell," she said.
"But, isn't that what I was doing?"
She rolled her eyes. "No, you were telling."
"Telling? Well, of course I'm telling," I said. "That's what I do. I tell stories."
She rapped her knuckles against the desktop. "Exactly my point, you're telling me the story instead of showing it to me. I want to see it, experience it, not have you just tell me what happens."
I opened my mouth, then snapped it shut. "But what about the scene with the wizard? I--"
I rubbed the flat of my hands over my eyes and sighed before flopping down into a nearby chair. "This conversation makes my head hurt."
Well, after that conversation, I became intrigued with the subject. How could I not? The "show, don't tell" concept presented me with a mystery that I had to investigate. I was on a mission. I had a journey to complete. But where should I start? Why, in my personal library, or should I say, my arsenal of self-help books. I ransacked my bookshelves, reading anything and everything that had to do with this topic. I devoured advice, digested it, and went back for more. I read my favorite authors, tried to see how they handled this very perplexing notion. After an exhaustive search, I thought I finally had a handle on this "show vs. tell" oddity. I could do it; I had the newfound confidence gained after reading all the how-to books. I was armed and dangerous. I sat down at my desk and typed: Mary was mad.
Okay, I admit, I used artistic license in the above scene. In reality, I think all writing is a form of telling. It's in how you present the telling that makes the difference. This is what I concluded after researching the subject: There are facts, and then there are FACTS.
Have I confused you?
To me, telling is giving the facts, "Just the facts, madam," without giving the full emotion or feelings of the character or even the setting and feel of your scene. Telling is plain and simple and devoid of rich content in your narrative. Telling simply states the facts: The day was hot. It looked like it would rain.
Wait a minute, you say. Mad is an emotion. I agree, but I told you Mary was mad. That's too easy and it fails to draw the reader in. Read on.
Showing involves details, emotions, and the senses. Showing is drawing a picture with words so the reader can step within and really experience the story as it unfolds. Showing is using strong verbs to express an idea, convey mood or tone. Showing enhances the facts:
--The sun beat down on the blacktop turning its surface to sticky goo. The air was laced with layers of heat, creating a curtain of hazy waves that rippled each time the wind shifted. Clouds dotted the horizon, their soft shapes climbing upward, forming towering pillars of gray that stretched high into the sky.
Is this correct? There certainly is more detail. Plus, my head no longer thrums with confusion. In short, it works for me.
Showing is hard work. Much easier for me to say, It was hot, and it felt like rain. But would that make you want to read more? Maybe, but I doubt much more if I didn't start to pique your interest or involve you in the world I am trying to convey.
Here's another example of my idea of what "show, don't tell" is about.
She walked into the messy room and approached the man asleep in the recliner.
--She eyed the stack of magazines leaning against the open door. A fine layer of dust blanketed the waist-high pile. Many of the pages were curled inward, the edges yellowed and frayed. Faded titles danced across the spines, the once black lettering bleached to a dull gray.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and shook her head.
"I swear," she mumbled as she entered the room. Pizza boxes, some still containing the dried remains of their original contents, sat upon the floor, the carton lids half open in silent protest. She pushed one shut with the tip of her shoe.
The sour sweet scent of sweat hung heavy in the air, mingling with the telltale aroma of pepperoni. Half-empty coke bottles perched here and there on the desk that sat near the bay window. Sunlight filtered in through its streaked panes, spotlighting the man asleep in the large recliner in the corner.
I call this type of narrative "painting the picture" or "drawing the scene." The same would apply if I wanted to show you that one of my characters was angry. Instead of writing the man was angry, you'd illustrate (note, key word here is illustrate) how he was angry.
If I take pen in hand and decide I want to show an angry person, I would have to draw the features that best expressed this without adding a caption that said, "Paul was angry."
I'd have to draw in the scowl, the down-turned eyebrows, the tightening along the jaw line. It's the same with writing. You have to add in the details that show me Paul is angry without simply saying he was.
Think about how you want to involve the reader, how you want to introduce your characters to them. Don't just announce that your character Sally had short hair and pale skin.
Present that in a scene.
"Won't you even hear me out?" Mark held his hand out to her.
Sally stepped away and tugged on the curtains. As they slid open, a shaft of sunlight cascaded downward, bathing her features in a veil of white light.
He couldn't keep his stare from her as she ran a hand through her hair, her fingers tucking a small section behind her ear. Small tufts curled around her face, making her appear almost childlike to him.
"I don't care, Mark," she said. "I want out."
Although my examples have concentrated on setting the mood or showing the surroundings, the same advice applies when you are using characters and dialogue. Give details, use strong verbs, and involve the senses.
One final thought on this illusive topic: You need details, but not everything needs to be described. You don't need to overdose on adjectives in order to show the details. Sometimes less is better. Concentrate on setting the mood, giving the reader a sense of your character's surroundings. Visualize the scene in your mind, then illustrate it.
At least, that's how I try to do it.
Doesn't Sheri's style take your breath away? I wish I could describe scenes that way, and if I ever acquire the ability, it'll be due in large part to my being inspired by Sheri's articulate instruction and eloquent examples. (Sheri says: Oh, thank you, Jeanne. I blush!)
Another goal I hope to achieve in writing fiction is described by David Gerrold in his book, Worlds of Wonder, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:
The single most important lesson of effective communication
is this: Focus on clarity. Concentrate on precision. Don't
worry about constructing beautiful sentences. Beauty comes
from meaning, not language. Accuracy is the most effective
style of all.
For some reason, I can grasp this. Maybe because I'm a concrete-sequential type person. I aspire to write science fiction and my style tends to be more, um, what does Sheri call it...scientific. Uh, thanks, I think. : )
In trying to be clear in what I say, I try to "be" the point-of-view character. What does the character see, hear, smell, taste, and feel in each scene? What emotions do surroundings and events trigger? Am I presenting these things clearly? If it isn't clear in the reader's mind, then the writing was all for naught. (Speaking of making sure one is writing clearly, watch for a future article called Critique Partners: Good as Gold.)
My ultimate goal, however, in describing a scene is to construct "beautiful sentences" that ring with clarity. Some day...some day.
For now, let's start with that messy room Sheri wrote about.
After speaking to the adoption agency on the phone, Tanya hurried into the messy living room and found her husband sleeping on the couch. She tried to get him to help her clean the place up.
Tanya hung up the receiver. Her phone conversation had the startling effect of bringing her eyes into sharp focus.
"Stanley, get off that couch this instant! This room looks like World War Three went off in it!" She began plucking up beer bottles and pizza boxes and shoving them, pushing them with her foot, actually, into the already overflowing garbage can in the kitchen. "Damn fruit flies," she muttered to herself.
She rushed back into the living room and poked a hard knuckle into Stanley's ribs. "Stanley! Get up! We only have ten minutes!" She grabbed stacks of his nudie and race car magazines from the coffee table and pushed them under the couch.
"Mrs. White is coming over to see if we qualify to adopt a baby." Tanya ran to the kitchen and began removing the dishes from the sink and stacking them into the oven. She ran to the living room again. "STANLEY! What the HELL do you think you're doing?"
"Hrrmmph." He rolled over so his back was toward her.
Okay, so maybe I overdid it a teensy weensy bit? How about the next example.
Vince awoke from a nightmare, only to realize that he also suffered from the nightmare of a bad hangover. Groggy, he turned in the bed to find an unfamiliar woman lying beside him.
Vince awoke, groggy. My head! He held his wrist up and tried to focus on his watch, but his eyelids stuck together. His tongue felt as woolly as an unwashed sheep. And what a dream he'd had--at least he hoped it was a dream. Worms and evil children. If he told anyone about it, they'd think he was nuts for sure. His elbow bumped a soft form. A warm, soft form. Oh God, what had he done now? He forced his eyes to a squint. He saw the outline of a nude woman beside him. His eyes opened wider. A beautiful woman. Her name? He hadn't the foggiest. What in the hell was in those drinks Fred was mixing last night?
Hmmm, I seem to have an affinity for questionable characters. Try this one?
Susan and Joe entered the motel room and set down their suitcases. Susan was disgusted by the strong, musty odor coming from the carpet. Knowing there were no other rooms available in the town, due to a local farming festival, Susan suggested driving farther down the interstate, even though they'd already driven six hundred miles that day on their road trip across the country. Joe said that he'd had enough driving for the day and they could tough it out for one night. Tired, Susan relented, but it took awhile before she could fall asleep.
Let's backtrack for a minute. Notice how you are being told what the characters are doing and how they feel. Renni Browne and Dave King in their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, call a passage like that "narrative summary." They and other sources suggest expanding such a passage into a scene, especially when it's about the main characters and germane to the main story. A scene "shows" the reader what is going on. One way to do that is through action and dialogue.
Here's my revision:
Susan swiped the card through the slot and the green light flashed. The door handle clicked as she turned it. She and her husband Joe stepped into the room.
"What is that smell?" Susan's nose crinkled in disgust as she reached to turn on the light. She set down her suitcase.
"Seems to be coming from the carpet," Joe said. "Like it's been under water at some time, then got moldy." He set his suitcase on a chair.
Susan scanned the room. Surfaces were clear of dust. The bedspread appeared crisp and new. She hadn't heard any squishy wet sound when Joe had walked across the beige carpet. But the odor emanating from it could have knocked over a charging buffalo.
"You think we should drive to the next town?" Susan said this though she longed for nothing more than to change into her pajamas and crawl into bed. On their way to see the Redwoods, they'd driven 600 miles across the Great Plains. According to the desk clerk, they were lucky to get this room. The town's "Rutabaga Festival" was in full swing.
"The what?" Joe had asked the gray-haired man at the front desk when they'd arrived.
"Why, Cornhusk County's Rutabaga Festival. You mean to tell me you haven't heard of it? Folks here from miles around competin' for the largest, the tastiest, the best rutabaga recipe, and the rutabaga most resembling a famous person." The man pointed his pen at a framed newspaper picture on the wall beside him. "The one Jim Crawley'd grown last year won in that event. His was the spittin' image of Susan B. Anthony." A look of pride on his face, he turned and peered over his spectacles at Joe, then Susan.
"Uh, no argument here," Susan had said. "Sounds like fun."
Joe had shrugged and handed the man a credit card.
Now in their pungent-smelling room, she was waiting for Joe's answer. "But the next town is over an hour away." She heard the weariness in his voice. His eyelids were heavy.
"But I don't think I can sleep in here," she said. "I'll drive."
He unzipped his suitcase. "Sweetheart, it's only for one night. We'll survive."
She frowned at the thought of having to spend a night in this room.
On seeing her expression, he said, "I'll turn up the air conditioning. The smell is bound to clear up."
As he headed toward the wall unit, Susan suspected he was also trying to convince himself of this fact. She hoped he was right, and she really was beat. Dropping her shoulders, she relented.
Later, while rinsing minty toothpaste from her mouth, the smell of mildew continued to permeate into her nostrils. She didn't dare remove her shoes until just before slipping beneath the covers.
After switching off the bedside lamp, she reclined against the too-stiff pillow and listened to the blower of the air conditioner. She sniffed. Even the starched sheet smelled musty. She pushed it away from her face. She thought she'd try once more. "Do we really have to stay here?"
"Hush, now, go to sleep." Joe turned to put his arm around her in his usual manner before his breathing became steady.
Susan sighed. How can he stand it? She could just bop him one for falling into a sound sleep while she lay there suffering. She pulled the collar of her pajama shirt over her nose. Even sleeping in the car would be better than this. She wondered if they'd be dead by morning from breathing in mold spores all night.
In spite of such worries niggling at her, exhaustion took over and she fell asleep, dead to the world.
Was the scene clear in your mind? Was it more interesting than the narrative summary paragraph before it? (Well, maybe even more so if Susan wakes up with a bloated head and has to be rushed to the emergency room for an allergic reaction to mildew.) Notice the use of action verbs (swiped, clicked, crinkled, unzipped, etc.) I tried to develop realistic sounding dialogue as well as incorporate the five senses.
Sometimes, though, narrative summary is useful for a change of rhythm in your writing, or for describing minor characters or scenes. In writing my first draft, I often write in narrative summary, just to get the plot down, then on the second draft I expand most of those paragraphs into scenes. It's definitely an effective way to add to the word count. : )
We invite you to share with us what you've learned about "To Tell, or Not to Tell, That is the Question" during your own writing journey.