Show, Don’t Show and Tell

So I’ve had this thing I’ve wanted to address in a post even since I started this blog almost two years ago.  I never have though, because I just wasn’t sure if it merited a full post.

Last week, I got one of my chapters critiqued by a friend, and they pointed out this error in my own writing.  Thus, this post.  Here’s an excerpt from the chapter:

“I tried to beg bread from the baker on Lake street every morning, and the baker was a very curious man.  Some days he would smile and hand me a bun, while on others he would chase me away using his old broomstick as a club.”

So, what’s wrong with that?  Well the problem is that while I was trying to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, I only sort of succeeded.

In the second sentence, the narrator describes the actions of the baker for the reader.  It’s active.  It puts an image in your head.  It’s showing.  (Points to me.)  But the first sentence?  Well… the first sentence is the problem.  In the first sentence, the narrator tells the reader that “The baker was a very curious man.”  Which is exactly what he shows them in the next sentence.

Why is this a problem?  Two reasons.  First, by telling the reader what I’m about to show them (or by telling them anything, really) I subtly start to pull them out of the story world.  It’s a quiet little reminder that they’re only reading a story with a narrator and a main character and an antagonist and all that junk.  They no longer feel as if the story is happening around them, but instead like it already happened, and now it’s just being explained.  And the joke is never as funny if you have to explain it.

Secondly, by showing and telling in the same sentence, I’ve wasted words.  And, as the great Dr. Seuss told us: “…the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”  More words don’t help you’re story move on.  Fewer words are always better.  Don’t waste time repeating yourself by telling what you’ve shown.

Believe it or not, this is an ever present issue in beginning author’s prose.  (Including, evidently, my own.)  Maybe our new slogan needs to be “Show, don’t show and tell.”  However, it isn’t a hard error to fix… if you can find it.  You just have to figure out which sentence does the telling, and delete it.  Let your showing stand by itself, and your prose will be better off for it.

Finding the error though?  That can be a little more difficult.  It takes time studying every sentence of your novel and making sure that you’re not repeating yourself.  Here are my suggestions:

Save it for later

Showing and telling isn’t always the kind of thing you want to waste your precious drafting time worrying about, especially when it can be “fixed in post.”  When you go back to edit your draft (you’ll have it done some day) pay attention any time that you are showing.  Are you telling the same thing that you are showing?  If so, cut it out.  Your prose can only get stronger.

Trust your readers (and yourself)

Many authors show and tell because they have no faith.  Some don’t trust their readers to make the connection between whatever they are actually showing and what they are trying to say, while others don’t trust themselves to leave enough of a case behind for the readers to be able to draw the connections.  But the truth?  Readers are pretty smart, and you can only get better at writing by forcing yourself to write better.

You don’t have to show and tell.  Don’t worry.  If your showing really is too vague, then your beta readers will help point it out (and they’ll probably even be able to help you fix it!)  So, if you’re ever tempted to drop in a clarifying “The baker was a curious man,” don’t.  Your novel will be better off if you don’t show and tell.

So how should I fix the excerpt from above?  Simply.  I’ve just got to cut out the telling:

“I tried to beg bread from the baker on Lake Street every morning.  Some days he would smile and hand me a bun, while on others he would chase me away using his old broomstick as a club.”

Shorter is simpler, and simpler is better.  Whether you’re writing children’s fiction or epic fantasy.

Okay, that’s it.  I guess I’m still not sure how to make a normal blog post out of this.  I hope you found it helpful, and I’ll be back with more next week!


Photo: Green Tree Silhouette, Paul Horner, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.

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