>> Tuesday, May 27, 2008
You've all heard it. "Show don't tell."
Most of the time it's not bad advice. But I think it can often be misleading, frustrating to hear, and completely unhelpful in some cases. Perhaps it happens most with writers who are experienced and already do show more than they tell; so it's natural to encourage other people to do it.
But did you remember to SHOW them how to "show" when offering that advice?
You can quote these nifty little phrases as much as you want; but keep in mind, especially if helping out someone newer to writing, that the person you're helping may not know how to do it.
I know when I first started writing (seriously) and people would tell me this, I'd often spend long, frustrating hours attempting to understand how to accomplish this elusive "showing" I heard was so important.
If you TELL someone to "show more, don't tell so much" then you owe it to them to SHOW them an example of what you mean, and how they can accomplish it.
It's like anything else. If you offer someone advice on active voice, give them an example of what you mean, point out how to accomplish it, and be specific where they have passive voice. It takes more time, yeah, and it requires you to think. ;) But I know how frustrating it is to be given advice and expected to follow it when I don't know how, when I've not been shown.
This holds true even when you're critiquing more experienced writers. I know sometimes it can be annoying (when you're on the receiving end of a critique) to be told something you already know, especially if the tone is condescending. But I think it's possible, with a little effort, to make your point, give an example, and not sound condescending no matter if you're critiquing a new writer or an experienced writer.
So, back to my point about show and tell. ;) (See, I'll show you what I mean. Bwha ha ha ha! Am I sneaky or what?)
I used this example for someone on Critique Circle awhile back. It has zombies, so if you don't like zombies, skip the examples. %-)
Jack grabbed the chainsaw and started chopping up zombies.
Now, this to me feels a bit tell-y and bland. If I read this, I would ask the author to show me more--let me be there and experiencing the zombie slaughter-fest with Jack.
So I might explain my point ("…for the action in this section, I think it would work better if you showed Jack killing (re-killing?) the zombies, like this...") and then give an example.
Jack raced for the tool shed. Behind him, the thud-thud of zombie footsteps drew nearer. He was almost there.
A rotting arm snared his jacket. Damn it! Jack twisted and shrugged out of his windbreaker. Too close. God, where had all these undead bastards come from? The full moon? His breath fogged his glasses. The shed was three steps away.
Jack stumbled over the cement flagstone and crashed into the siding. He fumbled with the paddle lock. It was never closed. Please, he thought, don't let Jane have locked it this time.
The stench of formaldehyde and rotting meat and bad breath made him gag. He wrenched the paddle lock off and heaved the door open. The shed was dark. No shit, he told himself, it's midnight. He jumped inside. It smelled like gasoline and dried grass. Where was it? Dad always kept the chainsaw primed.
Jack fumbled around. A rake tipped over and batted him in the head. He yelped and swung out at it. His glasses skewed on his face. His knee cracked into the plastic case. The chainsaw.
A fingernail snapped off as he pried at the latches. His hands shook.
The streetlight was blocked out as a animated corpse blundered to the threshold of the shed. Jack pulled the chainsaw out and revved it.
Jack screamed and swung around. The chainsaw blade ripped through sagging, worm-ridden flesh and the zombie's head toppled off its neck.
"Die, you bastards!" Jack yelled. He jumped out of the shed and swung the chainsaw. A hand went sailing. He cut down another zombie as they started to surround him.
Better, would you agree? (You don't have to. Honest. *hides the machete behind her back*)
Oh, I'm not always THAT detailed and specific or writing out whole scenes for someone (though, ahem, I have been known to do so). You don't have to re-write it for someone, or go on that long.
But the point remains; if you're going to tell someone not to tell, show them how to do it. Oh, and watch out for the zombies in the shadows.