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17 October 2008 @ 05:30 pm
writing: show v. tell  

I’ve been working on critiques all week. Critiques and I are an interesting clash. I kind of like doing them, but–with exceptions like this, when I’m doing it for the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop at which I’ll be teaching next week–I rarely make time to, even if I say I will. I am not a good critique partner in that sense. At all. And I know it, so I don’t volunteer, or ask people to critique my work, because I know I won’t get around to returning the favor.

On the other hand, I’m reasonably good at it. My friend Sarah and I had a writing teacher once who would say he wasn’t being paid enough to lie to us. I try not to be quite that, um, blunt, in my critiques, but there’s a fair degree of needfulness in that. Utterly pussyfooting around doesn’t do anybody any good. And one of the things I’ve learned about critiquing in general is that up-and-coming writers often need to focus on “show, don’t tell”.

That’s one of those phrases that gets bandied around all over the place, and it’s bloody hard to properly explain. It’s even hard to describe to a new writer without actually taking their own words and rewriting them (which, er, is what I usually do, in that situation). I think I learned my own lesson about show-don’t-tell when I was writing IMMORTAL BELOVED, a Highlander novel I wrote about ten years ago. At about 40,000 words into what I imagined would be a 100,000 word book, I had already written 2/3rds of the story. So I had to go back and rewrite and *show* things: get into the guts and the details and expose them to the world, rather than just relate what was happening. At the time I didn’t think of it as anything like that. It’s just in retrospect I think that’s probably when something clicked in my leetle brain.

So now I’m going to try to give an example of show versus tell, to see if it’s of any use at all to anyone. :)


Rodin ran up the stairs in the tower to the locked door. His heart pounded and he heaved for air. A wooden bird was at the top. Rodin poured water on its head and it sang, making the door open. It opened and on its other side was a beautiful princess.


The tower steps went on forever, hard granite edges catching Rodin’s toes as he stumbled from weariness. Too much water had sloshed from the birchwood bucket he carried: there was barely enough to perform the task set to him, and not nearly enough to slake his thirst. His thighs burned and breath came raw in his throat, as if the stale air pulled blood from his lungs when he dragged it in.

Endless curves finally circled to the tower’s solitary room, blocked by a threatening iron door. Torchlight danced shadows over the curving walls and illuminated the room’s solitary guardian: a nightingale, carved of dark shining wood. Rodin staggered to a halt a few steps below it, half uncertain the delicate bird could be all that stood between himself and his goal, and all disbelieving that the spell he’d been given would work. A glance back down the stairs reminded him of what he’d come through to be here: fairy tales or not, he would at least try his hand at breaking the spell.

His hands shook as he poured the water. A few drops beaded on the bird’s finely-shaped head; the rest absorbed into the dark wood as if it was desert sand, hungry for liquid’s touch. For a few seconds nothing happened, and defeat slumped his slender shoulders. One thousand and one steps; he had counted. One thousand and one steps up, and that many to go down again.

The nightingale tipped its head back and sang a note, pure and sweet as the spring water he’d carried from below. Rodin yelled and scampered down a few steps, the bird’s trill following him like laughter on a breeze. It spread its wings with a rustle of thin wood: feathers detailed in chisel marks caught the air, and its voice lifted further still.

Ancient and blackened iron began to crumble.

There you go. An object lesson in show versus tell. And I don’t know about you, but I’m expecting the princess to be waiting arms akimbo and with a pencil stuck through an unruly mop of hair and an ink smudge on a freckled nose. What do you think? :)

(x-posted from the essential kit)
Current Mood: productiveproductive
Maura McHugh: attitude cheetarasplinister on October 17th, 2008 05:40 pm (UTC)
If she's feisty I expect she'll have red hair. ;)
La Mutant of Reputemutantenemy on October 17th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)
This is a perfect reminder for those us braving NaNoWriMo next month. :-)
eclectic_writereclectic_writer on October 17th, 2008 06:39 pm (UTC)
I love this! It's going in my memories for when I get around to revisions on my WIP. I understand the rule for the most part, but it's still nice to see examples for future reference. :-P
(Deleted comment)
rfrancis on October 17th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
16:9 1.78:1 OARsixteenbynine on October 17th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)
I'm going to stick my neck out a bit and say that both of them can be appropriate. The first is useful if you're telling a story where brevity is crucial. The second, if you're telling a story where lushness is crucial.

One thing I've realized over time is that any rule of writing can be bent or outright broken if the need is there. "Show, don't tell" is every bit one of those rules.

I'd leave it up to the individual writer if it works better for them to start small and build up the text, or go the other way 'round.
Dinidamedini on October 17th, 2008 09:53 pm (UTC)
I'm going to show this to my son. He's 12 and that may click for him as well.
Amandatreehugginhippy on October 21st, 2008 12:45 am (UTC)
So, um, can I use this in my lesson tomorrow with my 10th graders? :) We just started short stories, and I want to use it as its own idea, but also to lead into characterization (how we're "shown" a character vs. what we are "told" about him/her). Using "Luck" by Mark Twain if that matters :)

kitmizkit on October 21st, 2008 07:20 am (UTC)
Absolutely! Have at! :)
Magessdarkmagess on October 21st, 2008 03:31 am (UTC)

I edited a book a few months back that had me pulling out my hair because it was ALL telling. And not being the development editor, I couldn't just rewrite it, because that's what it needed.

There was no sense of setting. That's one of the big giveaways. If nothing has texture, color, appearance, or sound, there's probably telling going on.

I was just doing this earlier today: I was imagining (because I do that a lot) telling someone about a story I had planned out in my head. And it was basically a string of "and then this, and then they went here, and then she was sad, but this had to happen because it comes up later, and by the end, blah blah, and he was very lonely." Because that's how you summarize and that's what you're doing when you're telling, you're summarizing.

What I -didn't- imagine was relating, say, what it felt like to be given a last memento of a lover who had died. Because that you have to plan out, place each word with care. And because, really, if you're trying to tell your friend what a story is about and start talking like an audio book, they're going to think you're a freak. ;)

Perhaps you could say that it's the difference between looking at a storyboard and watching a movie. The main thing you get from watching a movie is seeing the person and the world breathe. Maybe the script just says "Act sad", but on film that becomes a dozen different things at once, a twitch of the mouth, a look in the eyes, an aimless spin, a silent wail, or a loud one. And the audience gets it, without knowing what the direction was, without a neon sign over the person's head, without being told. They can see action and expression and know what it means.

Describe to me the movie in your head, so I can see it like you do. That's what I think the essence of showing is.
kitmizkit on October 21st, 2008 07:21 am (UTC)
Describe to me the movie in your head, so I can see it like you do.

Except some of us don't have movies in our heads. :)
Magessdarkmagess on October 21st, 2008 12:55 pm (UTC)
While I know intellectually that that's true, it's so beyond my ability to fathom that I don't actually know what to say.

How does it work for you if you're not seeing the action?
The Green Knight: writing toolsgreen_knight on October 21st, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
I'm moving through the story more or less in the way I move through dreams. (I don't know whether everybody dreams the same...). Viewpoint is mostly on-characters-shoulder - I am with them, but I am not 'them,' if that makes sense.