Saturday, May 12, 2007

Show, Don't Tell

Remember "Show and Tell" from your kindergarten days? The kids who opted to "show" caught my attention more than those who decided to "tell." (Yes, the fact that five-year-olds tend to have lousy public speaking skills may have had something to do with it, but bear with me.)

In writing, we are told, "Show, don't tell." What does that mean?

In my day job, I do a lot of marketing writing. Effective marketing is all about showing.

You can tell people your product is fabulous (new! improved! the best thing since sliced bread!), but unless you show them how it will make their lives better, easier, more meaningful, you're not going to get very far. Think about the last time you saw an advertisement or read about a product and it made you reach for your wallet. Go back and re-read that ad or article. Chances are, it's a great example of "Show, don't tell."

The same holds true in fiction. If you show your reader what is happening and what your main character is thinking, they're more likely to "buy it" than if you merely tell them.

Here's an example:

Option 1: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. I hate spiders. I leaped out of bed and screamed. This is telling.

Option 2: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. My skin felt creepy crawly. I leaped out of bed and screamed. This is better. We know the character hates spiders without being told. But, at least according to Dial Editor Nancy Mercado, describing body language and physical feelings is still a form of telling. How can we take this a step further?

Option 3: I spotted a spider on the edge of my pillow. One of it's long, hairy legs twitched as its beady eyes stared into mine. "Aaagh!" My feet hit the floor in two seconds flat. Though this still may not be Pulitzer-worthy, I think it works better. We see the spider from the character's point of view, and with that twitching leg and those beady eyes, we can feel the character's skin crawl. Heck, as the world's biggest arachnophobe, I feel my own skin crawl.

I think the key to "Show, Don't Tell" is to get into the character's head and to really relate the scene as he or she experiences it. I'm still working on this concept, so if you have examples you'd like to share, I'd love to see them!

No comments: