Wrestling with Show v. Tell

We love stories. Sit in any critique group for longer than 10 minutes and you’ll hear the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell.”  While it is true that all stories mix and balance showing and telling, the best yarns that keep us turning the page show characters acting, feeling, and responding. It’s not that you never tell. Sometimes, writers have to tell us that Jack climbed up the hill.

Telling has a place in storytelling. As readers, we don’t need to be told every tiny detail, particularly when it involves a mundane activity that doesn’t move the story forward, build tension, or impact the outcome of the story. Good writers use telling to share secondary information. For example, you can write “Jill drove to work.” You don’t want to spend sentences, let alone paragraphs, sharing every detail of Jill’s drive to work. That would be less gripping than watching outdoor paint dry on a rainy day. Save your details for revealing significant plot twists or scene descriptions. When you need to be clear and precise, tell.

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Showing builds intimacy between the reader and your characters. It helps us get in their head and peak inside their soul. Showing reveals a piece of your character’s heart. Showing builds tension and makes your reader curious to find out more. Done right, you’ll have your reader salivating like Pavlov’s dog.

A brief example of showing:

Mom sobbed as I stood at the edge of my father’s hospital bed. “Dad, do you know who I am?”

The man who I’d once considered invincible shot me a blank stare. “No. Who are you?” He glanced over at my mom, kneeling at his bedside. “Who is he?”

Deafening silence filled the room. I could hear my heart thump. In that moment, I realized that the anger I thought I’d let go still raged deep inside me. We had our share of disagreements, the old man and me. Now, I was the only one able to keep score.

“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”

Nothing but a glazed stare returned my plea.

Mom rose from the floor, pressed her hand on my shoulder, “He’ll remember you. You’ll see. He’ll get better. You can’t keep a good man down.”

My eyes welled up, my hands balled up in fists. Good man?  The man who’d once been my hero quit being a good man years ago.

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Good writing leans in favor of showing, sparing the telling for those things that can only be told. A great sentence doesn’t come easy. Writing riveting paragraphs demands effort. We only get better at writing by sitting down and hammering out words on our laptop’s keyboard. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. What are you waiting for?

Get writing!

 

Writing Is Hard Work

Writing is an endeavor of high highs and low lows that can be maddeningly frustrating one moment and intensely rewarding the next. Writing requires perseverance and the stamina to endure the long journey from idea germination to successful publication. Writers need to have thick skin, able to maintain a healthy life perspective while being pummeled emotionally by rejection and criticism.

Finish what you start. I can’t guarantee you that if you finish your story that you’ll be published. What I can guarantee is that if you never finish you will never be published. If you’re like me, you’ve got story ideas spewing out of your brain faster than you can jot them down on your iPad. The problem with that is if you don’t have the fortitude to focus and see one thing through from beginning to end, you’ll never finish it. You’ll have a box full of unfinished, uncommunicated ideas. When you die, those that you leave behind will curse you as they burn your leftover junk in effigy.

Delve Deeper. So you’ve finished draft number gazillion and one. You’ve got a good story. Solid characters. Fast-paced prose. Descriptive detail. Set your story aside for a few days or weeks. When you return, strive to delve deeper. Spice up the humor; stretch your boundaries. Rewrite the punchlines so they aren’t just mimicking what’s already been done a billion times before. Get grittier by darkening the edges to increase the tension. Twist the characters by adding a nuance to heighten the angst. Raise the stakes by increasing the risk so that readers get the highest return on their precious investment of time.

Join a Critique Group. Part of why 12-step programs are so successful is because they are made up of people helping people just like themselves. It is addicts helping addicts. A critique group works in a similar way. It is writers helping other writers. Writing can be frustrating and discouraging. Joining a group of like-minded individuals will reenergize and refresh your muse. Yes, they will be telling you what worked and what didn’t work for them. This helps thicken your skin in a nurturing environment. They aren’t just wounding you without forethought or trying to decimate you for sheer wanton malice; instead they are investing in you, and your story, by walking along the journey from idea to publication with you.

Above all, keep writing. You can do it; I believe in you.

Rainer Bantau Thanksgiving 2014