Show, Don't Tell: Real Examples, Real Books, Real Good Stuff
by Erin Brown
Show, Don't Tell! This maxim makes writers want to tear their hair out more than any other (well, other than, "Our agency isn't interested, but best of luck"). I've touched upon this topic a few times in the past, but inevitably, almost every first-time author I work with must overcome the tendency to "tell" instead of "show."
Many writers become frustrated thinking that the essential writing advice of "Show versus tell" means that every plot point must be shown (Egads, does that mean that I need to include everyone's point of view???? What about when my character goes to the bathroom—do I have to show that?). This is not what show versus tell means.
Often authors simply tell the reader about a character's personality ("He was a mean man") instead of showing it through dialogue or inventive narrative ("After that no good varmint kicked all my puppies and salted my fields, he shot a squirrel on Main Street for no damn reason and rode outta town on a broken old mule"). If you tell a reader that "the city was dark, dreary, and lonely," it's not as effective as, "The bitter cold howled through the empty buildings and a man whose face was too caked with grime to get a read on his pain shuffled across the street, an echo of his low, forlorn wail shooting around each empty corner before ricocheting off each deserted storefront."
To further clarify how to show instead of tell in your writing, I'm going to give a few examples from some of my favorite books. If they're not your great loves from literature, then you're obviously wrong, and I'm right. Here's how it will go: I will give an example of how the author might tell, and I will follow this with the lines from the actual book that more effectively show the same thing.
None of these incredible books would've been published if the authors had told information instead of showing it. Now, there are no correct answers, proper scoring, betting, or random guessing. Mostly because it's not that type of game—the fun kind with trivia. On that note, let's begin!
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (one of my favorites, as a good, Southern girl)
Tell: I was the son of a woman who loved books and wasn't very good at showing emotion.
Show: "I was the son of a beautiful, word-struck mother and I longed for her touch many years after she felt no obligation to touch me."
See the difference? That has nothing about showing and not showing plot points. This is about showing character versus telling the reader about someone's character.
Tell: As I mentioned, my family was complicated, and not in a good way. I used sarcasm to deal with this.
Show: "'What was your family life like, Savannah?' I asked, pretending I was conducting an interview.
'Hiroshima,' she whispered.
'And what has life been like since you left the warm, abiding bosom of your nurturing close-knit family?'
'Nagasaki," she said, a bitter smile on her face."
By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman (yup, it works for thrillers too!)
Tell: Mr. Rubin was blunt when he spoke to Tess and she could tell he didn't suffer fools gladly.
Show: [Mr. Rubin speaking to Tess] "Why are you wasting his time? Not to mention bringing personal business into my workplace. I hope you don't squander your own time as carelessly as you used my salesman's. After all, I'm paying for it."
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
*Mr. Lehane is this small-time writer who is just beginning to make a name for himself in publishing, in case you haven't heard of him.
*Please note that I didn't add, "I said sarcastically." This is because I showed you my sarcasm.
Tell: Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus's dads worked at the candy factory and smelled like sweets so much that those boys couldn't smell candy for years without feeling sick.
Show: "When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them…Sean's kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were seven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert."
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
*An almost indescribably beautiful writer and one of the few who can seamlessly switch points of view numerous times within scenes. Do not try this at home!
Tell: Victor Fyodorov liked to smoke and couldn't wait to light up, even in the face of danger.
Show: "Victor Fyodorov fingered the pack of cigarettes in his jacket pocket and wondered if they would let him smoke for a minute before gunning him down…It would be worth getting shot if he could have a cigarette now."
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole
*If you haven't read this book, do so immediately, if only for the fact that the tale of the novel's publication will make you have faith in everything that is good.
Tell: Ignatius didn't have much respect for police officers.
Show: "'You got any identification, mister?' the policeman asked in a voice that hoped that Ignatius was officially unidentified.
'What?' Ignatius looked down upon the badge on the blue cap. 'Who are you?'
'Let me see your driver's license.'
'I don't drive. Will you kindly go away? I am waiting for my mother.'
'What's that hanging out of your bag?'
'What do you think it is, stupid? It's a string for my lute.'
'What's that?' The policeman drew back a little. 'Are you local?'
'Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?'"
As you see, showing versus telling is not about showing every scene or every character's point of view. It's about painting a picture for the reader, giving the reader enough credit to put the pieces together themselves using the clues you've given them, with unique descriptions and voices, and unexpected and exceptional turns of phrase. It's about using the art of words to convey a deeper, stronger meaning. You can tell a reader something "till the cows come home," but they're not going to believe you unless you show 'em those "shifty bovines slogging through the sucking mud of the last, hard quarter mile, chewing cud and eyeballin' that cabin on the hill."
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com