“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most well-known pieces of advice for writers – and maybe one of the most difficult to follow. I’ve been thinking about this advice this past week as I edit one of my own books, and I understand just how hard it is to spot for yourself when one of your own passages is “telling”, and just how long it can take to recraft your prose into a scene that has life. I’ve also downloaded a couple of books recently that were absolutely full of “telling” – one of them by a new author, and one by a well-known YA author who has lots of books to her name. Both books had great storylines, but the action slowed right down with page after page of prose that seemed on the surface to be well-written but had no life in it.
What do you think to this paragraph?
Jonathan Rivers was studying his pen of first-class Angus steers when his agent Andy Bowen told him a woman was waiting for him. He bit back a curse. Ever since that stupid article appeared in a magazine a few months previously, telling readers he was looking to marry, a stream of women had turned up at his ranch. He’d given them all short shrift. He caught sight of the young woman waiting at the end of the pens in a city suit, and he assumed she must be another husband-hunter. True, she was a cut above the rest – but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to send her packing, just like all the others.
Technically it’s well-written and the premise is great. What’s going to happen when the ranch-owner meets the city girl? And what does she really want with him? Here’s the scene as it actually appears in A Parisian Proposition, by Barbara Hannay – a writer I really admire:
‘Hey, Jonno, there’s a woman asking for you.’
Jonathan Rivers dragged his attention from a first-class pen of Angus steers and shot a quick sideways glance down the muddy alley of the cattle sale yards.
A woman, dressed in a pale city suit and high heels, hovered at the far end of the pens where the concrete path ended and the sloppy mud began.
He stifled an urge to curse. ‘Not another husband-hunter?’
‘I guess so,’ Andy Bowen, his stock and station agent, admitted with a shrug. ‘But this one’s a cut above the rest. You should check her out, mate.’
Jonno groaned and shook his head in disbelief. ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go through this again.’
‘At least this one’s got class.’ Andy chuckled. ‘And I reckon she’s as stubborn as you are. Classy, sexy and stubborn as the devil. Could be your lucky day.’
The first version is just my second-hand report of an event that’s happened. The real version – Barbara Hannay’s – is a proper “scene” with a sense of setting, and of character. It has immediacy and life. The first version is a lot easier to write and uses fewer words. To write the second version takes time, and it involves exercising your writing brain muscles.
How about this sentence? When I looked up, I realised my cat was stuck in the tree.
The sentence tells you everything you need to know. But wouldn’t it be better to write something like this? I tilted my head right back. For a couple of seconds I saw nothing – just the sun filtering through the leaves – but then there it was: two wide, frightened eyes in a whiskery face, gazing down. My cat was stuck in the tree.
Words like “when” and “realise” are often signs of telling. “When I did this…” “I realised that…”
I realised she was wearing my jumper would be better: I did a double-take. She had my jumper on. The cheek of it!
Here’s a passage from the YA book I’ve just finished reading: The escape pods travelled at speed towards the Mazon ships. I watched their progress on the bridge’s viewscreen. The Mazon were fast advancing just as I knew they would…Only the Mazon ship did its job a little too well. Three, instead of two, of the escape pods closest to it exploded.
A skirmish in outer space. How exciting! What a shame the text is all telling, and not showing. What did the scene look like? Did the escape pods shoot out of the hold, a silver blur? Did cold sweat run down the narrator’s brow as their plan went wrong?
“Showing, not telling” takes a lot of practice to get right. You need to really get into the head of the narrator and BE that person. What do they see? What do they smell? What emotions do they feel? I wish I could have a rule myself to help me spot where my own scenes need expanding to make them much more immediate. One thing that’s really helped me is finding authors I admire and studying their books to see how they’ve done it.
How about you? If you are a writer, do you have any tips on how to show not tell? Is this something you struggle with? If you’re a reader, do you notice when the author is “telling” and the text seems flat?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear them!