I am currently doing a few editing run-throughs of my novellas targeting some very specific problems relating to “show vs. tell”. Yes, this is a huge topic and many words have been written about it, but I just want to talk a little bit about what I am specifically targeting right now.
There may be technical names for the various types of “telling”. I’m not sure. There are two variations that I am looking at, though I will mention a third as well. Here is an example of the first:
The sun was bright causing a blinding glare from the desert. John was hot, tired and thirsty. He knew that if he didn’t find shelter soon that he would most likely die.
Yeah, not great writing, but that is not the problem. I could dress this up and try hiding the “tell” quality in a fancy wrapper, but if it basically boils down to, “the sun was bright, it is hot and John I tired,” it is pure “tell”. A possible solution might be:
The sun beat down relentlessly on John’s back. He took another staggering step and stopped, wiping his brow. Pulling out his too light water bottle John twirled it. The small swish of water told him that there was only enough left for a mouthful of the hot liquid at most. He put it away, unopened. Raising a hand above his brow in a vain attempt to cut the glare from the desert, John squinted out, searching through the heat devils raising from the sand for a bit of shade or other shelter. His body could not take any more punishment and he knew he had to get out of the sun or die.
Yes, more words, but more than that, I never said “it was hot” (except for the water) or “John was tired”, I showed you the heat, let you feel it. This is one of the classic types of “show vs. tell”.
A small variation in it is the emotional one, the “she was mad”, vs the “her sneer scrunched her red face up, her eyes squinted, her noise curled”. Here is an example from one of my novellas of this:
I didn’t believe him. “Really?” I asked.
“Really?” I asked. I narrowed my eyes and, crossing my arms across my chest, leaned back away from him.
Despite the above example, I find that I use this type of “tell” more often in third person, but I do in first as well. (The “show” sentence above was my first draft of it, I only wrote the “tell” as an example.) My second main type is one that hits me more often in first person:
I heard a noise and turned. I saw a shadowy monster crash through the underbrush onto the path behind me. I was afraid and ran.
There was a noise behind me. A shadowy monster crashed through the underbrush onto the path. I ran, my heart pounding like a bass drum in my ears.
Although some might not agree that this is “show vs. tell”, it has the same effect, drawing the reader out of the story.
Most readers want to be immersed in the world of the story. They want to experience it. With my first type of tell, they are reading about dying on a hot desert instead of experiencing dying on a hot desert. It pulls them out. In the second type, you are putting a layer between the reader and the story, telling them that they are just reading. If there is a monster, they knew that “I saw” it, I don’t have to tell them. Telling them pushes it back, puts another layer between that monster and the reader.
Not all “telling” is bad and not all “showing” is good. Despite the current emphasis on it, there are times and places for them to be used. The world’s greatest authors “tell”. Of course, this little post is about my editing, so I won’t talk about when to keep the “tell” and when to use “show”. In fact, truthfully, I would have no idea where to start, I do it by instinct. Perhaps if I find a way to put it into words. For now, I’ll just go back to my stories.
After this, I am going to try to tackle my nemesis, “data dumps”. Ugh. I love to write data dumps even though I know everyone hates reading them. But I’ll push it off for now as I fix a few “tells”…