Any writer has probably heard, “show, don’t tell,” a million times. But what, exactly, does it mean? Should we always show, and never tell? The old adage, “too much of a good thing,” can fit easily into the answer.
A little telling once in a while is good, especially when trying to get quickly from one place to another. In a similar fashion walking is good. It’s really great exercise, and the best way to get from room to room in our house. We’d never think of taking the car to get from our bedroom to the kitchen. However, when we need to get to work or to just about any other place, the car is necessary.
Is that totally confusing?
To make it less confusing, I’ll share my pet peeve in telling—“and they kissed. Passionately.” What a let down! Scenes like this need a little more showing. But then, in other instances in our characters’ lives, all we need is a little word or two, especially if it has nothing to do with the plot of the story. For instance, the shower scene in Psycho. It serves a very real purpose in that movie, but if we put our character in the shower and spend a whole scene on it, there had better be a good and compelling reason. If there’s not, but you still want everyone to know that your character showers, then, “he/she showered and dressed,” is perfectly and wonderfully acceptable.
Here are two tips from the book, Self-editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King:
1. Flip through your manuscript without even reading it—just notice the white space. How much of it is there? Do you have any super long paragraphs?
2. If one of your scenes seem to drag, try making the paragraphs shorter.
Of course the perfect blend of show/tell is something you’ll just have to get a feel for with practice. In my novel, Farewell, My Denmark, I had a scene where the MC had wandered away from her parents and other immigrants. The ship’s whistle blew, and she ran back. That’s about as much thought as I gave it in the first draft. But then, after many edits, I stretched the scene out to this:
“How long had I been gone? How could I be so foolish? My parents were probably stricken with grief over my absence. Panic seized my breast. I ran toward our harbor hoping I was not too late to join them.
Unable to get there fast enough while wearing my wooden clogs, I pulled them off knowing I’d have to repair my stockings later, and grabbed them and my skirts up to hasten my arrival.
The horn blasted again. I’d gone too far. I would never make it in time. My lungs burned and my legs threatened to give way, but I ran all the harder. It seemed like an eternity. Had I really passed all these shops or was I lost? I kept running. This had to be the way.
I spotted the Saints ahead and a tear fell from my eye. I wiped it off with the back of my hand and nearly tripped, but I didn’t stop running until I came upon the edge of the crowd. The group was visibly smaller. Here I stopped and bent to catch my breath—it came in large pants and gulps. Sweat dropped from my forehead. My vision blurred, darkening temporarily, and my knees ached.”
I know some folks don’t care for questions in novels, but I ask myself questions all the time, so I feel that they add a touch of realism to novels.
As you can see, my paragraphs are fairly short, and this scene is more interesting than merely saying she ran back to the ship. It adds a little character to my character.
Do you have any tips on show/tell that you'd like to share?