Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Writing Lessons: Show and Tell

This part three of a continuing series of writing lessons.  Parts one and two were earlier on this blog.

They always tell beginning writers to "show, not tell."  I'm slower than most and it took me a long time to figure out what that meant.  At the risk of sounding stupid, it means: show your reader things don't tell them things.

For example, read the following passage.

A man walked into the bar.  He was tall and slim with broad shoulders, dark wavy hair and intelligent blue eyes.  He was dressed well in a business suit and a red power tie. 

Okay, that's not too bad.  You should have a picture of this man in your head.  But compare and contrast that to the following:
The man strode on long legs into the bar.  His quick blue eyes surveyed the scene as he looked for his friend.  He carried his tall frame confidently toward the bartender, adjusting his red power tie and pulling on the single cuffs of his starched dress shirt.  His shoulders filled out his expensive dark suit which complimented his dark wavy hair.

See the difference?  This accomplishes two things: one, the story doesn't come to a dead stop to describe the man.  The narration can continue (he walked to the bartender, he looked for his friend) while you are describing him.  (If I were writing a longer passage I would leak out these details more slowly than I did here).  And two, you can add more detail without getting boring (e.g., single cuff, starched shirt, confidently).

Here's an excerpt form a novel I haven't finished (barely started):

"What are you doing home," Marilyn asked Mike as she came in, her backpack over her shoulder making her shirt ride up more, exposing more of her bare, flat tummy over her low rise jeans.
"How was school?" Mike asked from the couch where he was watching the apartment's T.V.
Marilyn fixed him with her green eyes, her long dirty blonde hair hanging down her back to almost the end of her shirt.  "Don't change the subject, mister."
Mike turned off the T.V. with the remote and looked at her.  "I got fired."
"What?" . . .  She sat at the end of the couch and curled one long leg underneath her. 
Okay, what have we learned about Marilyn while the story was proceeding: she's probably a student (who else carries a backpack?), she's tall (long leg), thin (flat tummy), with green eyes and long dirty blond hair.  And we didn't have to read a paragragh of description to learn it and didn't stop the narrative dead cold with that paragraph.

"Show, don't tell" works with things other than descriptions of people.  For example, you can tell your reader "Joe died" or you can show your reader: "Joe slowly crumpled to the ground, a questioning look on his visage with his eyes going dark as he dies." 

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