I hear you already. “Not that old chestnut!” Sorry. Sad, but true: “Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the most common of errors I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks prowling the new-writer-blogosphere, and sometimes the errors are simply egregious.
First off, let me say that I believe it is damned near impossible to “show” everything in a story. I mean, come on; you have to take a short-cut through a description now and again. I also think it’s unnecessary to “show” everything. And, to round out the argument against, there really aren’t any “rules” in fiction…or at least there aren’t any rules you can’t break now and again. As always, know when you break a rule, and do it for a reason.
As promised, I’m going to pick examples of these errors from my own stories, posted here on this site. Some of these stories are my very first efforts, so finding errors in them usually isn’t hard, but “Show, Don’t Tell” is a mantra that was drilled into me early on in workshops and from editors, so I had to root about a bit to find these offenders. Every story has spots where I need to move things along and not gum up the momentum with a fully descriptive flashback. A memory here, a wondering thought there, these might be difficult to “show” thoroughly. So, even if you find this sort of thing in your own work, the errors may not be big enough to warrant a rewrite; fixing them might alter the flow of the tale.
Show/Tell requires a different mindset, a different approach. Once you get it, the problems are easy to find, but until you understand the difference, it can be hard to really see the forest for all the trees. When I’m rooting around for Show/Tell errors, I look for abstract words: words that lack detail or specificity. “Her hair was beautiful” is abstract. “Her hair was long, silken, and shone like a black cat on a sunny windowsill” is specific in its detail.
Rea, standing at the town’s edge with a group of others, watched the proceedings. She looked around her and could see that many of the younger spectators were unsure of how to react, confused by the conflict between their own excitement and the dour suspicion of their parents and elders.
The second sentence here is classic telling/not showing. “The younger spectators were unsure of how to react” tells us but does not describe what Rea sees. The second clause gives us a clue as to what is going on (the young people are excited, but their parents are not) but there’s no action in the sentence. It just sits there, passive and bland. Hint: Anytime a character “can see” something or anytime something is “obvious” to a character, I know I’ve gotten lazy.
If Rea “could see” that the kids around her were confused, then their expressions and actions can be described. If instead it were to read that the younger folk switched from wide-eyed, excited whispers to their friends to worried, surreptitious glances at their elders dour expressions, you might get the same impression. The difference is that you can see in your mind’s eye the action.
Another example, from the same story:
The intent, Evander explained to Rea, was to throw a huge party for the whole town – and anyone from out of town who could make it – while holding a smaller, more private gathering for the colonel and his personal invitees at Nestor’s tavern.
In this section, I’m telling you what Evander was explaining, rather than having him explain it to her directly. Here, some dialogue would show you the action rather than tell you. The danger in replacing it is to avoid expository blocks or “As you know, Bob” dialogue. However, I think this could have been replaced with a few lines of back and forth. Dialogue, with some descriptive text, can also help establish the sort of relationship Rea and Evander have, give the reader more backstory, or give us insight into Rea’s opinion of Evander.
Showing almost always takes more words than telling. Whenever I find myself impatiently pushing through a section or scene to get to the next, I know I’m in danger of lazy writing. Almost invariably, such sections require more rewrite than others. It’s a dance, though, to which we do not know the choreography; balancing description and specific action against the pace and flow of the narrative is difficult, especially in the compressed form of the short story.
As I said, this error takes a particular mindset to find. That’s why I find it easiest to take a pass specifically looking for this error. I can’t look for punctuation/spelling errors at the same time as looking for show/tell errors; they’re just too different for me to see at the same time. And once I start finding them, I find them easily, recognizing where I start to get lazy and hurried.
Next up: Marching into the Detention Center.