The Editor Pontificates: Show, Don’t Tell

NaNoWriMo is nearly upon us – in fact, as I write this, across a good chunk of the globe the clock has already ticked over the magical line of midnight to November 1st, when you get to shoot out of the starting block and race down the novelling track towards that elusive goal of getting 50,000 words on the page. So I thought this would be a good time to squeeze in another post on the writer’s craft, because of course we all have our heads in our stories and are aiming to make these the best novels yet. Right? Right.

The thing I want to talk about is that most hackneyed piece of writing advice, the one you can’t escape if you’ve taken any kind of creative writing class anywhere: “Show, don’t tell!” It’s a piece of advice that’s being handed out so freely, you’d think it wouldn’t need explaining any more. But from what I’ve seen as reader and editor, it appears that you actually still do. So I’ll put on my pontificating-editor hat (which is the hat of the pontificating editor, as opposed to the pontificating editor hat, which is the pontificating hat of the editor – the latter would probably look something like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies, with a mouth at the brim, pontificating away) and waffle on about it for a minute.

Just to refresh your (and my) memory on what “Show, don’t tell” actually means: in fiction, when you’re describing something, don’t just state as fact that something happened (“telling”), but let the reader see it through sensory detail, dialogue or implication (“showing”).

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Telling: “The orchard looked pretty.” Doesn’t give you the picture, does it?

So, for example:

“Joe got to the office building at 6:00 PM, stopped the car and went in.”

TELLING!! Now, how about this:

“The early evening sun caught the golden hands of the big church clock as Joe’s car rattled over the cobblestones of the market square. ‘Like a dagger,’ Joe thought, twisting his head around to maneuvre into the tight parking spot in front of the tall brick facade of Bemelman’s Law Offices, ‘that clock hand jabbing at the six looks just like a bloody dagger.’ He squirmed out of the narrow driver’s seat of the Smart, tugged down his suit jacket and ran a finger under his shirt collar. The gears of the church clock took their whirring breath to strike the hour just as he pulled on the wrought-iron handle of the old building’s front door.”

That’s saying the same thing – but so much more, as well. We know that it’s six because he says the clock hand points at it and it strikes the hour. We know it’s six PM, not AM, because it’s early evening light, not morning. We know that he’s going to an office – it says so – and that he’s stopping the car and going in. But we also know, from this short passage, that he’s in Europe (not many cobbled market squares with church clock towers in America, for example), and that he’s not happy to be there – the squirming, twisting, tight shirt collar and car seat, and thoughts of jabbing daggers tell you that he’s feeling rather anxious at the moment. Oh, and we know that it’s sometime around summer (because the sun is still shining at 6:00) and that it’s a sunny day.

But you didn’t need me to explain all that to you – you already had it figured, because you’re smart that way. See, that’s part of the reason why fiction writers need to show, not tell – because us readers ain’t stupid. Some writers don’t quite believe it, so just to make sure they double up – they do show, but then they also tell: “Joe ran a finger under his shirt collar, which felt tight because he was anxious.” Nope, nuh-uh, don’t do it. Show, don’t tell. Just don’t.

Unless, of course, you’re a reporter, not a fiction writer – then you need to reverse this piece of advice; you need to tell, not show. In fact, that’s how, in Grade 6, I got the first F of my school career. We had just moved, and in my new school they were working on writing “factual reports” in language class. I’d always been good at writing stories, but didn’t know about this “factual” stuff. So when we were supposed to write a mock newspaper report on some guy nearly drowning in the river, I threw in all these visual descriptors of the scene, and how the guy was feeling. Nope – FAIL! Not objective enough. Stick to the facts, girl, tell what happened, don’t show it! I’m still smarting from that F some 30-odd years later. But now I’m taking revenge on that failed factual report by letting my imagination run riot on the page. I’m showing ’em!

Now, if you need some help and inspiration on how to do this “showing” gig really well, go over here and take a look at Jodie Renner’s most excellent post on how to use verbs to make a passage sing. In fact, bookmark that page and keep going back to it, and then do yourself a favour and buy a copy of Jodie’s book, Fire Up Your Fiction, which is stuffed full of superb advice like that. (And no, I have no commercial connection with Jodie; I’m just advertising her because I think others could benefit from her excellent work, too.)

Incidentally, doing lots of showing rather than telling is also a really good policy for NaNoWriMo purposes. With NaNo, you want the greatest possible word count. The “showy” passage about Joe, above, clocks in at 111 words, vs. an emaciated 16 in the “telly” sentence. What’ve you got to lose, other than dry and dusty prose?

Life, the Universe, and Showing vs. Telling. Go give me the picture!

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4 Comments

Filed under editing, writing

4 responses to “The Editor Pontificates: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Annette Welz

    Thanks for this Angelika I’m joining nano write month this year so it came at a perfect time. Thanks again. Annette Welz

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Annette Welz

    For the record, your post was far more useful than Jodie’s post. Annette

    Liked by 1 person

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