Show and Tell

From Scott:

Most of us know the story of Achilles, a warrior and hero from Greek mythology. According to the legend, his mother, Thetis (a nymph-goddess) took him as a baby and dipped him in the river Styx to make him immortal. However, the heel that she held him by was untouched by the waters and therefore became his one weakness. The term “Achilles’ heel” has since passed into common usage to indicate a person’s primary vulnerability. The Achilles’ heel of any good writer is the usage of weak forms. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to fall into the habit of telling the reader what is going on, rather than showing. When you tell, the words pull the reader out of the story. You’ve spoon-fed the information to him. Rather than picture the imagery in his head, the reader will simply understand it to be the way you’ve said it is. When you show the action to the reader, he will figure out on his own just what you are describing. Rather than words on a page, he will have a vision in his head, almost like watching a movie. At that point, you’ve fully immersed the reader in the story.

One of the problems in my original draft of The Killing Frost was my tendency to tell the reader what was going on, rather than show the action. I told my audience that a character was angry, or excited, or whatever, when my writing would have been much stronger had I shown those aspects demonstratively. In this blog post, I shall go through some of the more common problems associated with showing versus telling, as well as some other examples of weak and strong writing.

Let me start with an example of weak writing (telling):

“Stop it!” he said with anger in his eyes.

In this example, the writer tells us the character was angry. The reader will pick this up, but it can be done more effectively. Some writers will resort to substitutes for the “said” tag, such as “he roared” or “he screamed.” Again, this is a much weaker form than showing the reader the character’s anger”

He slammed his mug on the table. “Stop it!”

In that example, I still have the dialogue. I eliminated the “said” tag, which helps the writing flow more smoothly. And the character’s action of slamming the mug on the table demonstrates to the reader that the character is angry. Now the reader can picture this, mentally, and not have to be pulled out of the story by having the writer beat him over the head with it. A reader wants to discover these things on his own, rather than have the author lead him around by the hand.

A similar issue arises with the overuse of the –ly form. Don’t misunderstand, I realize that there are times when an –ly word is necessary. But such cases should be rare. When you, as a writer, find your characters doing things “angrily,” or “quickly,” you need to reevaluate how you are going to structure the sentence. An example of misuse of the –ly form:

He walked down the street happily.

Yep, he’s walking, and he’s happy. But telling this to the reader is a weak writing form. Again, you don’t need to clobber your reader over the head to get your point across. Show him what is happening, and let him figure it out. A stronger writing example of the same scene:

He whistled a little tune as he skipped down the street.

Not once in that example did I mention the word “happy.” Yet the image it brings up shows the reader that this character is happy about something. And by putting imagery in the reader’s head, you have further immersed him in your writing.

Another weak form comes from the passive tense. While grammatically correct, it makes for weak writing. Let me show you an example:

His body was covered with slimy mud.

Once again, with this writing, I am telling the reader what is happening. I haven’t shown the reader anything with that sentence. The passive tense tells us about the situation, but it lacks action. The next example contains the same information, but the action within the sentence shows the reader what is going on:

Slimy mud covered his entire body.

–or, more descriptive–

The slimy, viscous mud covered his body from head to toe.

These two examples show the action of the mud covering his body. Your efforts to paint a picture of your scene will be much more effective using this form.

So check over that manuscript before you send off your next submission to a publisher or agent. They are so swamped with letters in the slush pile that they will use any excuse to whittle it down. Nothing screams “amateur writing” quite like passive voice and “telling” the reader about your scenes. The corrections are easy to make, and your writing will be that much better because of it.

[Rick says that next time he’ll cover more weak forms and provide an excellent example (not his own) of how to avoid them.]


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