Grace's Mosaic Moments

Sunday, July 21, 2013

EDITING - Show vs. Tell

Birthday Girl - not my martini, but it made a good photo - I was drinking Glenlivet!


Susie & Grace 7/19/13

Getting back to EDITING . . .

The "Why" of Show vs. Tell

1.     “Telling” is presenting a story in classic “storyteller” mode. The narrator stands off to one side and describes the scene, rather like TV narration of a scene for the blind. Everything is “described,” rather than “lived.” 

    Another way of saying this is that the Author narrates the story rather than allowing his/her characters to demonstrate the story.

2.     “Showing” a scene is inevitably going to take more words, because it’s necessary for the Author to get inside the heads of the main characters and allow them to show us what is happening. Showing involves more “theater.” A person’s thoughts, dialogue, and actions, using colorful descriptive words. An author must get right inside the hero’s and heroine’s heads and let us see what they see, hear what they hear, feel what they feel. “Showing" paints a picture, a lively, interesting picture, while “Telling” merely recites what is happening without adding any “pizzazz” to the story.

3.    “Telling” is oh-so-much-easier than “Showing.” Nice, straight declarative sentences. Get the action out there. Never mind that your readers fall asleep. The campfire’s pretty - who needs to listen to what the storyteller is saying?

4.    “Showing” requires WORK. What are the people in this scene seeing? Why are they there? What are they thinking? What do they say to each other? What are they accomplishing? Does the joy shine through? The sorrow, anger, frivolity - whatever it is you want that scene to do? Or did you just lay it out there - poor, naked bare bones, white and shivering, begging for sparkling dialogue, descriptive language, colorful settings, inner thoughts, etc., to flesh them out, bring them to life?

5.    To add to #4 above, “Showing” does not simply mean letting the hero and heroine tell the story instead of the author, but making sure your hero and heroine do so in the most descriptive, colorful, dramatic, romantic, humorous, horrific, or tragic way possible. Do not settle for the ordinary. Fight for the extraordinary. Be all you can be. Sitting down at your computer and “telling” us your story in mostly declarative sentences or a lot of dialogue with no introspection is absolutely, positively NOT the way to go.

6.    Mechanics.
       a.  There are a number of telltale signs to look for. Was and were are perfectly okay—the best authors use them all the time—but if you find you’re using them over and over in nearly every sentence, THEN you just might be “telling” instead of “showing.”

    b.  The same for: It was & There were. Yes, there are times when you can use them, but in general try to find another way to go.

    c.  He felt, she knew, he thought.  Many times these and similar phrases are unnecessary. They take you out of the protagonist’s head and put you in the author’s head instead. Let us discover what the hero/heroine feel or know from his/her Point of View. And make sure revealing what they are thinking is also from their point of view, not the author's. If it’s a really direct, first-person thought (Oh no, they think I did it!), use italics. If you’re writing the thought in third person, no italics.

    d. The litmus test: does your sentence sound like something your hero or heroine is thinking, seeing, feeling? Or does it sound like you, the author, are “telling” your readers what your hero and heroine are seeing and hearing and how they are feeling?

    e.  “Betty was a short-tempered shrew.”

    The above sentence is perfectly okay if the protagonist says it in Dialogue or thinks it in Introspection.

    The sentence is Wrong if the author is “telling” us this fact about Betty, a fact that has not been introduced into the book by any of the previous character, primary or secondary.
    [Exception: if you are an author with the stature of Nora Roberts, you can use Author POV, because Nora was using it back when it was still considered okay, and what editor or agent would dare tell someone as successful as Nora what she can and cannot do?] My personal opinion: Author POV, when done right, can be wonderful (see the opening pages of The Witness, Nora’s latest). But if you’re a beginner in an era
(like now) when Author POV is out of favor, avoid it like the plague. Keep in mind that it probably went out of favor because so few authors were using it well. They went over the edge into “storyteller” mode and lost their readers.

~ * ~

I wrote my first example of Show vs. Tell for an RWA chapter workshop way back in 2003. I decided it was time to update, so I massacred three more excerpts from my manuscripts for this series. Why always my manuscripts? Well, would you really like me using your manuscript as an example of "bad"? Or messing up your exquisite prose in the name of teaching? 

Example of “Telling”:   (Events narrated by the Author, with little thought for colorful description, dialogue, introspection, or drama)  - [The scene, as originally written, follows.]

Geoffrey and his little sister climbed into the rowboat while Victoire held it steady. Geoff sat in the stern, his sister in the bow. Victoire shoved the boat into deeper water and scrambled on board. Sitting in the center seat, she took up her oars.

The sun shone, birds twittered, a duck paddled past. In the distance they saw two swans. Victoire allowed the boat to drift, savoring her enjoyment in being part of the Tarleton family. The best thing that had ever happened to her. Except for Jack. She frowned.

“Miss?” Geoff asked.

Guilt swept over her. She shouldn’t be worrying about Jack when she had the children with her. She pulled on the oars, heading toward a good fishing spot near the center of the lake. But the boat didn’t feel right. The oars were harder to pull. Her feet were suddenly cold.

“Water!” Geoff said. Serena let out a cry.

When Victoire looked down, water was already an inch deep. She should turn around, she thought, but they were almost in the middle of the lake . . .

She hauled on the oars, putting every ounce of strength into each stroke. A glance over her shoulder told her they weren’t making any progress. She could swim, of course, but what of the children?

Icy water gushed in. They were going down. They had to get out. When Geoff told her he could swim, Victoire told him to jump overhead and swim for help, while she did everything she could to keep the boat afloat.

She told Serena to hang on, think of hot chocolate and a warm fire. At last Geoff reached the bank, was running for the house. They would be saved. And then she would find out what had just happened.

Example of "Showing":  (The scene above as originally written for Rogue’s Destiny)

Victoire held the rowboat steady while Master Geoffrey Tarleton and his five-year-old sister Serena climbed in, young Geoff taking the seat at the stern, while his sister perched on the narrow seat in the bow. Victoire, having grown up around boats of every variety, managed to hitch up her skirts, give the rowboat a shove into deeper water, and scramble aboard before the children drifted off without her. For a moment she balanced precariously, arms wide, as the boat bobbed beneath her, and then she was seated on the center seat, the oars grasped firmly in her hands.

Behind her, little Serena clapped her hands and giggled. They were afloat. The sun shone, sparkling off the lake’s clear water. Birds twittered in the trees, circled overhead. A duck squawked, paddling furiously out of the rowboat’s path. In the distance two white swans glided majestically against a lacy backdrop of willow branches. Victoire heaved a sigh. Magnifique! All was right with the world.

Well, perhaps not quite. She glided the oars through one long stroke, two, three, then allowed the boat to drift as her mind did the same. She could scarcely remember a time when she had been so content. Being part of a family, a real family like the Tarleton’s, had been so long ago she could scarcely remember it. But these last few weeks had reminded her how glorious it could be. Two parents who loved each other, three beautiful children, including Andrew, the baby. Warmth. Caring. Living at The Willows was the best thing that had happened to her in a very long time.

Except, possibly, Jack. Silent Jack. Jack, the enigma. Jack, who had turned his back on her.


“I’m sorry,” Victoire murmured, her wandering thoughts brought up short by young Geoff’s quizzical look. How could she fuss over her own problems when her hosts had endured so much, coming very late to the happiness they now enjoyed?  After flashing her warmest smile, Victoire plied her oars with a right good will, pulling them steadily toward an expanse of lily pads near the center of the shallow lake. A spot where, they knew from past experience, fish lurked, just waiting to be caught. 

Victoire suddenly frowned. The boat didn’t feel right. She was pulling harder on the oars, huffing a bit. Cold. About her feet.

“Water!” Geoff yelped. “We’re leaking, miss.” Serena squealed.

Victoire looked down. Incredibly, water was already an inch deep in a boat that had been sound not two days hence. Turn around!  But they were almost in the middle, the shoreline a good fifty yards in any direction. Faster to just keep going than attempt to turn around . . .

“It’s over my boots, miss,” Geoff said, amazingly steady—truly his parents’ child. Serena, not so stoic, began to whimper.

Victoire hauled on the oars, putting every ounce of strength into each stroke. Glanced over her shoulder. Dear God, they weren’t making any progress at all. But Serena, bless her, was curled up on the narrow bow seat, her feet tucked under her. Sniffing, but controlling the wails which had to be welling up in her throat, because Victoire could feel them in her own. She could swim, of course, but the children—

“Geoff,” she panted as she fought the increasingly sluggish rowboat, “do you swim?”

“Yes, miss.”

Thank God. “Serena?”

The long pent-up wail burst from the little girl’s throat. Her brother answered for her. “Not very well, but she can float.”

Water was gushing in, as if every seam between the planks had suddenly opened up, turning into bubbling geysers filling the boat with water.
They were going down. In water still icy from a hard winter, forty yards from shore, with two young children, the boat was going down.

Surely the boat, made of stout wood, would turtle, allowing them to cling to it. But she couldn’t count on it. Not in time. The water was cold, like the waters of Lower Canada. They had to get out before it sapped their energy, making it impossible for them to save themselves.

Water. Again, water. Her life seemed linked to watery disasters.

Not this time!

“Geoff!” Victoire thrust an oar into his hands. “I know you can swim, but clothing and cold water make it hard. Hold this tight, don’t let go. Use it to help you get to shore as fast as you can. Bring help. I promise you I’ll take care of Serena. Now, go!”

Without the slightest hesitation, the boy tumbled out of the boat into the water. Grasping the oar in both hands, he kicked hard, heading for shore. Victoire tossed the second oar into the water, turned and grabbed Serena just as the boat began to go under, stern first. Tears streaked the little girl’s face, but Victoire heard no sound. It was as if they were enveloped in their own tight bubble, Victoire, Serena, and the oar she had to find. Now, this very minute!

And . . . there, she had it. She draped Serena’s arms around the oar, told her to hold on tight. Placing her own hands to each of side of the little girls, she slipped her body in behind her. And then they were moving. Slowly, so slowly. But ahead, thank God, she could see Geoff already half way to the shore. If he didn’t grow too cold, lose his grip . . .

No! She wasn’t about to abuse the Tarleton’s hospitality by drowning their two oldest children.

But it was cold, so very cold . . .

In between reciting every prayer she ever learned at the convent, Victoire inserted encouraging words for Serena. Hang on, hang on, just a little farther. Geoff will bring help. Think hot chocolate, a warm fire, how happy your mama will be to see you . . .

And, yes! Geoff was scrambling up the bank, running for the house.

They were going to make it. They were. She would not let this child die. And when she could stop hanging on, stop kicking, stop praying so desperately, she would take the time to analyze what had just happened. And why.

~ * ~

Thanks for stopping by.


Next week: a Show-Tell example using first person - a bit trickier as First Person inevitably makes the main character a narrator. 

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