Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I have to admit, I’ve always been a little confused by the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ – I mean, we’re authors, we work in a written (not visual) medium; the whole point of storytelling, is to to tell (see? it’s right there in the name).

But, then again, I do like Chekhov’s call to arms:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

Okay, so say I do as you ask, Anton, and instead of writing:

It was a full moon.

I write:

A silver light glinted off broken glass.

It’s still telling, isn’t it? I’m still verbalising a visualisation, still passing on information as a seeing woman would to a blind man.

So what, reallyis the difference?

moonlight

One definitely has a more engaging voice – a poetic sensibility and sense of storytelling rather than mere telling. 

But, how far can we (should we) take it. What if, instead of writing:

She smiled.

I write:

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards.

Seems a little overdone, no? Like I’m now turning my back on my other literary hero, Hemingway, and using seven words when two would suffice.

Which bring us back to the original question: What really is the difference? What does ‘showing’ really mean?

My answer, after much consideration and consternation (and rewrites after rewrites of telling drafts and over-written drafts), is this:

It is not the poetry of description that identifies ‘showing’, it is the dominance of the active verb.

Telling uses passive verbs. Showing uses active verbs.

Passive verbs are those that are static and/or exist solely inside one’s head. The ‘to be’ verbs. The ‘thought’ (liked, remembered, desired, wished, despised, etc) verbs. (Chuck Palahniuk has a great post on eliminating thought verbs here).

Active verbs are dynamic, the ones you can actually observe and engage with.

Let’s look at the examples again and throw some more in for fun:

  • It was a full moon VS a silver light glinted off broken glass
  • She smiled VS the corners of her mouth twitched upwards
  • The box felt heavy VS the box settled in her arms like lead
  • She detested the zombie VS she aimed the rifle at the space between the zombie’s dead eyes
  • She ran to her mentor VS her feet thundered along the road to her mentor
  • Jasper was tired VS Jasper rubbed the sleep from his eyes with a weary hand.

 

If you’re up for it- why not join me in responding to Chuck’s challenge and start the process of eliminating passive verbs from your writing? Let me know how you’re going with it in the comments!

 

Image courtesy of Abbyladybug via Flickr Creative Commons

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Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

Failing NaNoWriMo

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I had the best plans to really put some stream of consciousness writing down on my Elementals novel during NaNoWriMo. Instead, I found myself doing more thinking than writing. About a quarter of the way through November, I realised that I was falling into the same trap I had with other (unfinished, half-loved) novels that I had started before.

I love my novel concept and I think I will love my characters (once I give myself a chance to fully develop them and get to know them), but I found that I didn’t love the canvas on which I was presenting these two components.

As with other novels I have attempted to write, I was getting the feeling of 0.99c mediocrity (you know, that feeling that just because you can write, doesn’t mean you can write well or a write a great novel – despite almost unlimited opportunity to draft, publish and sell your novel at the perfect ‘let’s just have a look’ price point of 0.99c. Almost a literary version of Idol – you have a nice voice and can belt out a tune in the shower or in front of appreciative family and friends, but can you captivate an audience with a song that will transform their experience? Should you really be putting it out there on the international stage with just a ‘yeah, I can sing’ mentality? The number of 99c ebooks I have bought that suffer from this kind of purple prose, poor development and suffocating superficiality… A kind of paint by numbers approach – that’s what I mean by 0.99c mediocrity).

Now, I know this screams of that self-doubt that I have written about before – and flies in the face of the wisdom that advises one to just get the words on a page and refine later. But I think this is deeper. This is about ensuring you work with the best materials to begin with – akin to “don’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink” or “poor data in, means poor analysis out” or “prepare your canvas!“.

So, as indicated above, I spent the rest of NaNoWriMo learning about good writing – rather than indulging in bad writing. I learned from the masters – both classic and contemporary – by reading good books and watching good television. I fed myself with great stories and, in digesting them, came to a new (albeit, still undeveloped) understanding about what makes them good.

As part of the November reading challenge for Goodreads Group, Dystopia Land, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451‘. Helpfully, Ray Bradbury himself tells us what makes his novel a great novel. In a discussion on the quality of books, Faber tells Montag:

This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are…The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.

Life is hard, tough, overwhelming, underwhelming, transformative, unforgiving, challenging, redeeming, responsive, sublime. To capture this on a page or a collection of pages – that is to write a good book. It is not enough to have an interesting premise and great characters – these two components must be drawn together in a way that tells the story of life. That is what distinguishes between a novel and a fairytale. The relentless push of reality versus the saccharine musings of a dreamer.

Failing NaNoWriMo