Monday, June 20, 2011

Literary Show and Tell

As promised in last week’s post, I want to spend a bit of time talking about how the term show and tell applies to writing.  If you recall, this came about as a result of my rereading the S.E. Hinton novel, The Outsiders, and finding it rife with instances of tell rather than show. This novel was penned when the author was just sixteen, which prompted me to recall how many contemporary young authors seek my advice and struggle with this very problem. Given that I like to help people succeed where I’ve failed, and to do so in the easiest manner possible, I felt compelled to break down what it means to show readers as opposed to tell readers what you want them to know.

Before I go any further, I think it’s only fair to say I too have made the mistake of telling and not showing my readers what’s happening in my stories. Some of these mistakes I’ve shared in prior posts, including my recently diagnosed (and now in remission) addiction to adverbs.

Adverbs are those pesky words that end in the letters ly. Most often, these are used to describe a character’s dialogue. The writer wants to convey anger, sarcasm, fear, disgust, etc and falls back on one of these words.  It goes a little something like this: ‘I can’t stand you’, Mary said angrily. ‘You’re no walk in the park,’ John responded disgustedly. And so on and so forth. For some reason, writers believe the harsh words won’t stand on their own to convey the heated nature of the scene so they fall back on these adverbs. I too was one of those writers. However, since having it pointed out by a diligent editor, I’ve made an effort to cut them back and use them only in moderation. There are occasions when an adverb or two is called for, but their use should be sparing. By using adverbs, writers are telling the readers instead of showing them.

So, how does a writer show a character’s emotions without using adverbs? I often ask young writers how I would know their characters were angry, sad, frightened, etc, if they weren’t allowed to use an adverb to tell me. Many are stumped as to how to answer so I ask a few more probing questions. Let’s use anger as an example. How do I know a character is speaking angrily without the author telling me that’s what she did? Did her face redden? Did she speak through clenched teeth? Did she roll her eyes? Did she ball up her fists, raise her voice, stomp around the room, throw something… Get my drift? Writers need to use their descriptive abilities and describe the emotions and actions as opposed to falling back on those adverbs.

Speaking of descriptions, I often find character descriptions gone awry. By that, I mean authors once again tell the readers what a character looks like. I know what you’re thinking. How else will readers know what characters look like if the writers don’t tell them? There are ways to show readers what your characters look like that don’t consist of the following: John was six feet tall with blonde hair and blue eyes. This kind of description is dull and can be detrimental if John is the protagonist. When writers start off by telling me what their characters look like, I’ve already lost interest. Instead, I encourage writers to find another way to work in physical description. Instead of just telling us John is six feet tall in this straight forward way, say something like: John had to hunch over to fit his six foot frame in the door or John never could find inexpensive clothes that fit well, owing to the fact that he was six feet tall. There are all kinds of creative and clever ways authors can introduce character traits without boring the reader.

Some authors also tend to take the show and not tell advice a little too far. They’re so keen to show readers what they want them to see, that they end up doing it in a rather telling way. It happens like this: Mary entered the house and saw two blue couches facing each other. On the wall, she saw photographs of Tom’s ex-wife and felt angry. Then she looked at the coffee table and saw the photo album and saw the words Tom and Sue engraved on it in gold letters. Can you pick up the mistakes in the italicized section? There are a couple of them. The glaring mistake is the use of the words she saw to describe the setting. Many authors do this. I can only suppose it’s because they think readers won’t be able to otherwise know who’s seeing things, but they’re missing the boat. Authors need readers to identify with the protagonist and feel as though they could be him or her. Using words like she saw takes that away from readers. Not to mention, it disrupts the flow of the story and insults the readers’ intelligence. Consider the following passage: Mary entered the empty house. Photographs of Tom and his ex-wife lined the painted walls. A photo album entitled Tom and Sue sat atop the coffee table. Mary’s face heated up as she mashed her lips together. Why did Tom still have so many photos of Sue in his house when they’d been divorced almost ten years? Could he still be in love with her? I think you’ll agree the second passage did a much better job of setting the scene and portraying Mary’s emotions without weighing the story down. 

As I've said a few times, I've been guilty of many of these same mistakes. In fact, it pains me to admit but some of my early professional offerings, including my award winning novel Extraordinary Will, are chock full of these issues. Since the beginning of my career, both my writing and I have matured. In sharing this, I hope to spare many up and coming writers the agony of going straight to the slush pile. Can I guarantee following these rules leads to publication? Of course not, but it makes for better writing all the way around. 

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