Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Show: Don't Tell

This week it's all about the writing process.  Mainly about Alex and I's writing process and the things we do, the things we need to improve, and a little advice to help you with your own writing.

Alex and I both have trouble with our powers of description.  Personally, I think it's one of the hardest things to do.  You have to know where the line between just enough and too much information is and sometimes, that can be a hard line to discern.  Here are a few things to try and avoid/do when writing.

Rambling:  Characters can ramble.  Narrators can ramble.  Hell, the excerpt on the back of the book can ramble.  But you, as the writer, have to know when to cut it off and let the reader infer things.  Or, better yet, read that paragraph again and decide if the reader actually NEEDS to know everything you just told them.

For example, you might write a sentence like this:

Jane went to see John, in a blue mid-sized sedan, because John didn't have a car, therefore if Jane wanted to see John, she knew that she would have to drive out to see him.

It's a little ridiculous, no?  Your reader doesn't need to know WHY Jane is seeing John, or even John's circumstances.  This is really all they need to know:

Jane got into her blue Prius and drove out to see John.

You get the same message across, but without so many words.  And the reader doesn't NEED all that other stuff.  It just clutters up your novel.

Inference: Your readers are smart people.  They know how to make connections without you spelling it out for them.  That's part of the point.  If you tell them every last detail and don't let them draw conclusions, well, they're going to get real disinterested, real fast.  Let's go back to our driving example.

Jane went to see John because he didn't have a car and he was miles and miles away from her.  It was really important that she see him right now because in the morning he was going to run away to Mexico and she couldn't let him do that.  After all, she was in love with John.

Here I spelled out every last detail, never letting the reader make any connections themselves.  In reality, a sentence like this would be much better:

Jane drove all the way out to see John.  She couldn't let him leave.  Not now.  Not until she told him.

You still get all that same ideas, but we leave out some of the more important details.  I didn't TELL you that she cared about him, even loved him, but you get the idea without being told.  Even if you don't explicitly make the connection, "Oh, she loves him", you'll still realize that she feels strongly for him. (Also, and I'll talk about this later, the idea is that you would do other things BEFORE this sentence to indicate her feelings.)

Repetition:  Readers remember things better than you think they do.  And I'm not telling you that you shouldn't EVER repeat things, because you should.  There are important things to the story that you should remind your readers of.  But do it in moderation.

Let's go back to Jane and John.  If John is running off to Mexico, we only need to be told the place once.  After that, just remind us that he's leaving.  We're going to remember where he's going: we only need to be reminded THAT he's going.  And you can do it in subtle ways.  For example:

Jane walked in on John and saw his suitcase laying on the bed.


John wondered if going was the right thing to do.  He still didn't know where his brother was, not to mention getting all his affairs in order.  He looked out the window and saw Jane.  And then, of course, there was Jane...

There are lots of ways to tell us John is leaving, without obnoxiously repeating things like, "John was leaving for Mexico in three days."

Show - Don't Tell:  You have to lead a reader like you lead a horse to water.  Lead them up to your climax.  Make sure your events all interconnect to bring it to that one, massive, breaking point.  You're leaving breadcrumbs for the reader, letting them pick up each one, chew on it, digest it, until they're ready to pick up the next crumb.

For instance, if you want to confer that Jane loves John, SHOW that she loves him.  She could look at him longingly, hint at her feelings, do little things for him that indicate it, so that when she finally TELLS him how she feels, it's that much more powerful for the reader.  After all, they've been anticipating it for most of the novel.

Or it could be something very simple.  For Example:

When Jane flicked on the light, all the flaws of the bathroom were exposed.  She saw cockroaches flit across the floor.  She delicately picked up the toliet seat, hand wrapped in toliet paper.

Isn't that so much better than:

Jane entered the bathroom.  It was dirty.

And it's alliterative.  Which, clearly makes it better.

These are the things that I've found are the biggest hurdles in writing, and if you pay attention to them, they'll gradually help other aspects of your writing as well.


  1. I think I read on one of the nano forums last year in regards to 'show vs. tell' was one person's account with it and what finally clicked was 'descriptive telling'. Essentially we're telling (when we're showing) it's just effectively showing that picture in our head.

    I used to be quite wordy until I read a bit of the "Elements of Style" and afterwards I was a bit self conscious about how long a sentence was. I get down to the essence with each sentence. I try to avoid doing it in first draft but it's become a major part of how I write now, which is why I think I compose slower than what I used to.

    Off topic- ZOMBIEwrimo! Ever since I read that in yesterday's post it's been stuck in my head.

    1. Finding the right balance between too much and not enough can be hard. Alex has the tendency to over-explain things with her characters, while I forget to explain anything at all.

      Alex will be THRILLED about your excitement for NaZoWriMo. She even created a "NaZoWriMo" logo.

      Seriously, it was never meant to go this far. It was just a joke.... XD