Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Show, Don't Tell"

Okay, so I'm deviating a bit from the Write Your Novel in 30 Days calendar to discuss a principle which has been on my mind recently - the classic "Show, Don't Tell" adage of writing. 

Back when we got engaged my husband and I were taking a class together at BYU.  We always sat together and probably even snuggled a bit (I'm not shy of such public displays of affection), but it wasn't until I wrote "I'm engaged!" next to my name on the attendance roll that I felt I had truly shown the world how excited I was for my upcoming marriage.  When I showed it to my then-fiancee he rolled his eyes good-naturedly, (public displays of affection are much less appealing to him) and then I handed the roll on to the next person and thought nothing more about it.  That is, until a few days later when the roll was being passed around again and I saw written next to my excited scrawl the words "No one cares."

I'm not sure why I keep thinking of this incident.  I wasn't really offended... I mean, I didn't even know the person who'd written it, so they obviously didn't mean it as any kind of personal attack.  Still, I wondered a lot about the type of person that would write such a thing.  Was this person left bitter after a recently-botched relationship?  Did they feel they were old and "beyond their prime"? (given the average age of married students at the BYU campus feeling "old" is a lot easier than you might think...)  Maybe they were just sick of hearing about marriage when they felt the focus of the institution ought to be on education - no time for frivolities like love.  I don't know.  I've never known, but I've often wondered.  

I tell you this story not for your pity (though you're welcome to offer it), but as a pretty dang good example of how your novel will be much more emotionally engaging if you reveal your characters through show rather than tell.  Let's say Mr. "No one cares" is the main character of your novel.  It would be easy to simply tell your readers he is a bitter old harpy who resents anyone else's happiness, but the reader would only "see" what you want them to see without necessarily feeling what you want them to feel.  What if, instead, you show an attendance roll being passed around.  You show it coming to your character.  You show how various emotions are roiling inside of him until he rashly dashes off "no one cares" next to the words "I'm engaged!" and then quickly passes the roll along before he can think too much about it.  Wouldn't a scene like that provide the reader with essentially the same information, but much more feeling?  That is the difference in showing versus telling:  feeling.  Whereas telling a narrative is merely relating a story, showing it helps the reader live through scene right along with the character, providing that magical illusion of being a part of the story.  

One of my favorite examples of "show vs. tell" narrative comes from Les Edgerton in his book Hooked.  I realize I've already shared it with you on this blog, but I think its worth a repeat:
"Characters are best revealed by their actions... For instance, if you feel it important to develop your protagonist’s characterization as a skinflint, don’t give some long, drawn-out tale of him pinching pennies as a youngster, or (worse!) tell the reader he’s a miserable miser. Instead, in your opening scene, show him doing something miserly within the context of the inciting incident scene. Show him having to transfer two handfuls of hundred-dollar bills to one hand so he can scoop the inside of the coin return of a candy machine for forgotten nickels."
Have you struggled with understanding the "show, don't tell" principle in writing?  For those of you who are more experienced writers, do you feel it has become easier as you've practiced it?

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