Posts Tagged ‘show vs. tell’

Yeah, I’ve gone all zen on you.

Recently I read a post on Absolute Write in which a writer asked for advice about doing more showing and how to avoid “rushing” through the story. What intrigued me was that the person asking the question, whether she realized it or not, had already figured out the answer. To slow down a story’s pace, show more than you tell. To show more than you tell, slow down the story’s pace.

It made me think of a recent NPR segment on why time seems to go so quickly as we get older. They float several scientific reasons for why things move slowly when we’re young and quickly when we’re old, but the one that stuck in my brain was this: we’re recording less detail as we get older. Like recording a TV show on an old VHS player, our brains are capable of high resolution memory recording, which takes up a lot of tape, and low resolution memory recording, which takes up less tape.

When we’re little, we tend to record in high resolution, because we’re experiencing things for the first time. As a three-year-old, we may be accurately recording our birthday party for the first time. The feel of the rubber band holding the party hat on our head. The smell of candles smoldering on a cake, maybe even the strange waxy ghost of those candles in a bite of chocolate frosting. It’s the first time! We record everything, so the theory goes, hence it seems to take a long time.

It's all a blur

Flash forward to your forty-third birthday party and you’ve been through this routine so many times that you’re barely recording the experience at all. Singing, cake, candles, all in a quick rush of the familiar. Time flies. This is true with a vengeance for the daily tasks of our adult lives. Weeks pass in a blur as we spend eight hours a day sitting in the same office, staring at the same computer.

Fiction works the same way. To slow down the pace of the reading, record at a high resolution. To get more detail, slow down. If your writing feels rushed or the room your characters are in seems like a white box, it’s because you as the writer aren’t letting your characters be in the moment. Maybe you’re rushing to get to the next scene. Use the zen technique of presence. Pretend you’re experiencing the thing for the first time, even if you’ve imagined the scene a million times. Be in the moment. Look around as you write the scene.

And don’t just look, use all five senses. Is there a snag on the plastic fork to scratch at your character’s lip with every bit of birthday cake? Is the girlfriend of your character’s brother playing footsie with the wrong brother under the table? On purpose? On accident? Is there a cloud of cloying bathroom deodorizer wafting down the hallway to ruin the smell of beef bourguignon? Are Grandma’s dentures a little loose and prone to clack when she talks?

Writing affords an opportunity that life never does: a pause button and a rewind button. You can stop the action, go back, re-experience, re-live the scene at a slower pace.

Read Full Post »

Show vs. Twitter

As part of a little writing project organized by Dee Garretson, I’m participating in a group of writers all discussing the same aspect of writing on the same day. Our topic for today is ye olde favorite: Show vs. Tell.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll say again that Tell is not inherently evil. Beginning writers have heard the admonishment to “show, don’t tell” so many times that they think it’s written in stone. It’s important to remember that Tell has its purpose and its place.

Tell can sum up years of quotidienne activities in a paragraph. Each morning for thirty-six years, she brushed her teeth furiously before eating breakfast.

Show allows us to linger over the details of those activities in a way that reveals character motivation. She attacked her teeth and gums with the nylon bristles, scouring away any hint of plaque. She was never satisfied unless the expelled foam was tinted pink against the sink’s porcelain. After brushing, she drank orange juice.

Tell can paint a minor character in a six-word brush-stroke. He was a fat, smelly greaseball.

Show provides us with the ephemera of gesture and body odor that would allow us to identify that minor character in a mid-novel line-up. Dried sweat rings rimed the underarms of his greasy t-shirt, which was stretched taut over his belly and stained with his last three meals.

Succeed vs. Fail

Succeed vs. Fail

Which brings me to Twitter. 140 characters to get across the import of what we thought on the bus to work in the morning.  140 characters to sketch out the strangers we share that ride with. Because of the limited space, I find most of my tweets are Tell. There’s simply not enough room to adequately Show. I often tweet about what I see at the gym, but how to convey the mysteries of my fellow gym patrons in 140 characters?

To the two guys at the water fountain beside the track: get a room. #gymtwit

It tells you the rough idea of what I saw–two guys being a bit too intimate with each other while getting a drink in front of me. What I can’t show you in 140 characters is the way the younger man’s pupils went wide with desire as he admired the bent neck of his running buddy. I need more than 140 characters to show you the older man caressing the other runner’s arm, skimming sweat with his blunt fingers, even as he bent his  knee to nudge the younger man’s leg, damp, crinkly hair rubbing against blond fuzz.

Often, the choice between Show and Tell is just that pragmatic–what do you have room for? In writing short stories particularly, if you’re shooting for under 2K words, and a scene of showing will push you over, but it’s not a scene that is crucial for the reader to see in detail, you sacrifice.

Conversely, if you’re shooting for 100K word novel and you’re coming up short, you can easily go back and fill in more Show to flesh out your story with sensory detail.

Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis–showing conveys more importance. If we see the bloody toothpaste spat into the sink, it takes on weight. Show to emphasize, Tell to de-emphasize.

Other times, it’s a matter of pacing. Show can make a scene creep like a tortoise on a desert highway, as the narrator lavishes attention on every gesture, every sensation, every play of light on the draperies. Tell can make a scene fly by so quickly we later forget it, with no sensory details to pin it to.

For all these reasons, it’s important to be comfortable and adept at using both Show and Tell. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? So be sure you have more than a hammer in your writing toolbox.

To see what others had to say about Show vs. Tell, please visit their blogs:

Ink (Tracey Martin)

Blond (Gretchen McNeil)

Tas (K.A. Stewart)

Wendy (Wendy Cebula)

Sunna (Amy Bai)

Melia (Dee Garretson)

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: