Writing Mechanics: Show vs. Tell

Writing Mechanics: Show vs. Tell

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Writing is easy. Writing well is hard work.

It’s easy to write about a place you’ve been or something you’ve seen. The difficulty is writing in a way that makes your reader see it too.

After surviving several brutal (but wonderful) content edits, I’ve begun to realize the weaknesses in my writing style. We all have them. Every writer out there has some bad habit or foible that keeps their writing from being legendary. That’s why writers need editors.

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard work.

The number one issue I struggle with is the Showing vs. Telling conundrum. I can tell you all about a place I’ve seen or something that’s happened or people I’ve met, and in normal conversation, that’s perfectly fine. But writing a novel isn’t conversation.

The goal of a novel (in my opinion) is to transport the reader to another time and place, make them feel what’s happening, help them experience the story within the book as though they were actually there.

Telling doesn’t accomplish that. Showing does.

Blog readers are lucky

You’re going to get a sneak peek of my current WIP, New Name: The Destiny Trilogy Part Three. It’s due out in December, and I’m buried in my initial rewrites right now. But I’m doing something different this time.

With the previous books, I took the original manuscripts and tweaked them. It was faster for me at first, but my poor editor had her work cut out for her. They were a mess.

So this time, I have the latest manuscript (finalized in 2012), and I’ve marked it up with everything that needs to change. And I’m actually rewriting the entire story. There are a few lines and passages that I’m keeping, but the majority of it is being totally redone.

The show-vs-tell problem is the main reason why. And I thought I’d share an example.

This passage is from my initial draft of New Name, circa 2012:

          Ring-Seven.
          Aura stood in the marketplace and opened her ears to the chaos around her. All at once, she could understand why Kale would have hated it. He had been hiding. He had been on the run. Standing in the open in a seedy port like Ring-Seven would have made him feel vulnerable, much like Aura felt presently.
          She had never identified with Kale more than at that precise moment. It made her miss him more, so much it hurt.

What does that tell you about the marketplace? What does it tell you about Aura? What does it tell you about how she feels? Does that bring you into the story at all?

No. Just be honest. No.

She’s standing in a marketplace. Okay, we got that. Ring-Seven is a space station mentioned in the first book. Kale, another character, didn’t like it. Aura feels like Kale did and misses him.

Impersonal. Vague. Lazy.

So how do you fix it?

The first step is to attack the senses. Sight, smell, sound, taste, feel—use those sensations to communicate the experience of being somewhere.

Keep character and voice in mind when you’re writing in third-person PO.

The next step is simile and metaphor. Compare an unfamiliar experience with a familiar one.

The final step is voice. Communicate all of the above in a tone that matches the character. For example, Elizabeth Bennett wouldn’t compare someone’s snoring to a jet engine. Elizabeth Bennett never heard a jet engine. Elizabeth Bennett would compare someone’s snoring to a rattling wagon or a grunting pig.

So using those keys, that passage from 2012 has become this:

          Ring-Seven.
          The space station smelled like jet fuel and frying oil, all mixed together with the scent of unwashed bodies and alcohol. The swell of the crowds within the station’s Card Street Market swirled with people from every moon and colony, a mish-mash of colors and fabrics and overlapping languages, babbling like a confused symphony.
          Aura leaned against the false brick wall of a bar that blasted music into the street and beckoned passers-by through its doors with a holographic dancing woman.

Better, right? I hope so. My editor hasn’t seen this yet.

But I thought it would be a helpful example in the whole show-vs-tell concept. It’s difficult to say that there are rights and wrongs in writing, but showing and telling are big issues. Granted, I think you can overdo showing also, and sometimes you have to tell to move the story along.

The most important thing to remember about writing, though, is that whatever you write must captivate your reader. Whether it’s showing or telling, if you don’t engage your readers through your writing, you’re wrong.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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