Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Show" Don't "Tell"

The Fish Boil
“Show don’t tell” is a principle of good composition. Of course a good book has descriptive narrative in it as well. The trick is to find balance. But it is easier said than done. I tend to have specific scenes in mind where I want to "show" what is happening and write narrative to connect one scene to another.

Here is an example of “telling.” You will remember it from an earlier entry.

The restaurant was a little less than a mile away so they walked down Main Street acting like tourists, stopping to take in the colorful displays of local vendors. The two arrived at Grady’s log building about a half hour early. Patrons of the restaurant were invited out to the backyard of the structure where they stood around with their drinks in hand to witness the boiling of the fish. As two men piled wood on the fire, the host told his guests what they could expect. Sonja and Damon watched with fascination as the water in the cast iron kettle resting on an iron tripod above the wood fire began to boil.

The head cook lowered a basket of red potatoes into the salted water and then lowered a second basket filled with chunks of whitefish freshly pulled from the waters of Lake Michigan. After a few minutes, oils from the fish rose to the top. Guests were warned to stand back as the cook’s helper tossed kerosene on the wood fire. The flames shot up and suddenly the water boiled over causing everyone in the crowd to cheer. The head cook removed a piece of fish, deemed it perfect and everyone moved back inside to be served their plate of fish and potatoes.

Sonja and Damon sat down to their salad while they waited for their plate of fish. Sonja explained it would be drenched in melted butter but was the best fish you could ever want.

“Telling” or describing the fish boil is not critical to the story. I needed Sonja and Damon to have a date, give readers a feel for the setting, and show my audience the sort of thing the two would be doing as time passed in my story.

I could have accomplished the same goals by “showing” my audience the fish boil segment. Some ways to “show” include using dialogue, action, senses, feelings, or using a combination of these. 
Use dialogue to "show"

Just for fun, let’s try to change the above excerpt to “show” instead of “tell.”

“So what is this fish boil thing we’re going to anyway,” Damon asked.

“It’s a dining experience,” Sonja replied, a twinkle in her eye. “They build a big wood fire out in back of the restaurant and put a pot over it with red potatoes and chunks of whitefish and cook it until it boils over.”

“Great,” Damon responded sarcastically.

“No, really, it’s fun! Everyone cheers at the boil over and the food is great. You’ll love it. It’s a true Door County experience.”

Damon reluctantly pulled his windbreaker over his head. “Wanna take the Harley?”

“No need. We can walk.” Sonja was anxious to show Damon around Fish Creek.

“Oh this keeps getting better and better,” Damon answered without enthusiasm.

Hmm…Maybe I will incorporate a little showing with my telling. I kind of like the way this reveals a little about Damon’s character.

Here is another example. 

Telling- The wood porch wrapped around two sides of the farmhouse. Three rocking chairs were positioned near the front door of the structure. Gavin sat in one of the chairs near the front door and looked out over the cotton field beyond the road.
Use action to "show" what is happening here.

Showing- Gavin’s boots made a clomp, clomp sound as he made his way across the porch. The wooden planks creaked as he lowered himself in the rocking chair nearest the front door and and studied the cotton field across the road.

Anyway, you get the idea. Now take a look at your own writing. Are you doing more telling than showing your readers what is happening? Try a rewrite.

Interestingly enough, while drafting this post I received a great tweet from fellow author Cheryl Wyatt. It challenges the writer to “show” instead of “tell” by using the senses or dialogue. Here is the exercise she poses. Give it a try.


I would love to hear about your writing. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at rwaters.author@gmail,com.

Thank you for the great response in choosing a new name for Shirley. I have chosen "Livvie." Although Livvie got the most votes, Helen was a close second. And now for the winner. I literally put everyone's name in a hat and picked out...drumroll here...Tammie Weatherly! Congrats Tammie. I will get your $5 Starbucks card in the mail to you right away.

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