Today’s Editing – Another Show vs. Tell Post

I am currently doing a few editing run-throughs of my novellas targeting some very specific problems relating to “show vs. tell”. Yes, this is a huge topic and many words have been written about it, but I just want to talk a little bit about what I am specifically targeting right now.

There may be technical names for the various types of “telling”.  I’m not sure.  There are two variations that I am looking at, though I will mention a third as well. Here is an example of the first:

The sun was bright causing a blinding glare from the desert.  John was hot, tired and thirsty.  He knew that if he didn’t find shelter soon that he would most likely die.

Yeah, not great writing, but that is not the problem.  I could dress this up and try hiding the “tell” quality in a fancy wrapper, but if it basically boils down to, “the sun was bright, it is hot and John I tired,” it is pure “tell”. A possible solution might be:

The sun beat down relentlessly on John’s back.  He took another staggering step and stopped, wiping his brow. Pulling out his too light water bottle John twirled it. The small swish of water told him that there was only enough left for a mouthful of the hot liquid at most. He put it away, unopened. Raising a hand above his brow in a vain attempt to cut the glare from the desert, John squinted out, searching through the heat devils raising from the sand for a bit of shade or other shelter. His body could not take any more punishment and he knew he had to get out of the sun or die.

Yes, more words, but more than that, I never said “it was hot” (except for the water) or  “John was tired”, I showed you the heat, let you feel it. This is one of the classic types of “show vs. tell”.

A small variation in it is the emotional one, the “she was mad”, vs the “her sneer scrunched her red face up, her eyes squinted, her noise curled”.  Here is an example from one of my novellas of this:

I didn’t believe him. “Really?” I asked.

Vs.

“Really?” I asked.  I narrowed my eyes and, crossing my arms across my chest, leaned back away from him.

Despite the above example, I find that I use this type of “tell” more often in third person, but I do in first as well. (The “show” sentence above was my first draft of it, I only wrote the “tell” as an example.)  My second main type is one that hits me more often in first person:

I heard a noise and turned. I saw a shadowy monster crash through the underbrush onto the path behind me. I was afraid and ran.

Vs.

There was a noise behind me.  A shadowy monster crashed through the underbrush onto the path. I ran, my heart pounding like a bass drum in my ears.

Although some might not agree that this is “show vs. tell”, it has the same effect, drawing the reader out of the story.

Most readers want to be immersed in the world of the story. They want to experience it. With my first type of tell, they are reading about dying on a hot desert instead of experiencing dying on a hot desert.  It pulls them out. In the second type, you are putting a layer between the reader and the story, telling them that they are just reading. If there is a monster, they knew that “I saw” it, I don’t have to tell them.  Telling them pushes it back, puts another layer between that monster and the reader.

Not all “telling” is bad and not all “showing” is good. Despite the current emphasis on it, there are times and places for them to be used. The world’s greatest authors “tell”. Of course, this little post is about my editing, so I won’t talk about when to keep the “tell” and when to use “show”. In fact, truthfully, I would have no idea where to start, I do it by instinct. Perhaps if I find a way to put it into words. For now, I’ll just go back to my stories.

After this, I am going to try to tackle my nemesis, “data dumps”. Ugh. I love to write data dumps even though I know everyone hates reading them. But I’ll push it off for now as I fix a few “tells”…

Advertisements

21 thoughts on “Today’s Editing – Another Show vs. Tell Post

  1. Gary A Wilson

    Great stuff Trent. I actually like the skillfully used data dump, but it has to be packaged for consumption, like the protagonist thoughtful reviewing it and thinking about sections as it is revealed. Maybe the tech gene in me is speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks.

      I’ll most likely do a post on data dumps, but if I can’t find a way to smooth it out, I follow the old having Gandalf telling Frodo the story of the Ring model – a conversation where all of the info is given. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works if not overused.

      Like

      Reply
  2. Ocean Bream

    I thoroughly enjoyed this. People are always talking about ‘show vs tell’ but you have illustrated it excellently with your examples. I always try to keep this in mind, that you want the reader to feel immersed, rather than told what is going on. It is far harder to put in practice, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks. It is very hard to put into practice, at least for me… As I said in a comment to D. Wallace Peach, I read so much about the topic, but didn’t really understand it until someone used simple examples. That’s why I had to use examples in this post. Glad you got something out of it :)

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  3. D. Wallace Peach

    I always find the examples helpful. And though they tend to be longer, I do prefer the “shows” over the “tells.” They’re more immersive and let me have a sensory experience of the story. But you’re right, there are good reasons for both. :-)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. trentpmcd Post author

      When I first started to take writing more serious, I saw tons of articles, posts, etc. about tell vs show, but not one had any examples. I thought I understood, but then when someone had a simple example it was like a light bulb turning on. Yeah, I was just padding my “tells” with a bunch of description until then. I was talking to someone (one of my beta-readers) about tell vs show, and I think she had it slightly wrong, so I came up with these examples in my head, but decided to do this post with them instead of emailing her ;) With my editing, it is amazing how just a few word changes can make the paragraph or even the scene come more alive.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  4. Violet Lentz

    Very well thought out post. I don’t know where I fall in because I just tell the story. I leave a lot unsaid I think but I don’t drag you there i just set your mind to wandering. I really enjoyed this.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks. For the most part, when I write, like you I am just story telling. I usually don’t go much beyond that for stories on the blog, but when editing for publication, even if it is self-publication, I want to be sure that my words do the story justice.

      Like

      Reply

Express Yourself

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s