Show and Tell

Ah, Lady Godiva, the queen of Show and Tell!  According to the popular story, Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who suffered under her husband’s harsh taxation. Lady Godiva begged her husband who stubbornly refused to lower their taxes. At last, tired of her whining, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride through the streets of the town. She took him at his word and did it. Apparently, Lord Godiva was a man who honored his commitments, and he acted on his promise.

While we seldom feel compelled to ride naked though the streets demonstrating our opinions, we all have moments of extreme emotional crisis; moments when everyone around us can see we have reached the limit of our endurance.  We turn white with rage. Our eyes glaze and we clench our fists. In an explosion of rage we pound the desk, and curse fluently at Microsoft. We may even throw our laptop through a window …

Or not.

By these signs, we show how enraged we are.  We never say we are about to get mad – we DO it.

Thus it is in our writing.   We authors are artists, and we use words to paint our pictures. Imagine we watching a scene from a reality TV show.  The characters never announce,”Now I’m going to get angry.”  You know the characters are angry because they shout, or have a specific facial expression, or slam a door.  It is through these actions and displays of emotions that we know how a character is feeling. The characters don’t tell us.

In every first draft manuscript, every author, no matter how great they are, will have the occasional moment where they forget to SHOW the action, and instead they TELL it.  This is one of the reasons we rewrite whole sections of perfectly wonderful stories.

Now yes, authors are story-tellers  – we all agree this is true – but think about it  for a moment:

Bradley was angry. He yelled, “I’m going to kill you for this, Gobner!” 

There it is, in all its unrealistic, unexciting glory. If such a thing happened in a real office Bradley would be escorted off the premises, possibly in handcuffs, so it won’t work the way we have plotted our murder mystery. Now let’s try it this way:

Bradley’s face paled. His fists clenched and the sound of his teeth grinding was audible as he stalked back to his cubicle. With deliberate calm, he gripped the letter-opener, imagining it was a knife. Drawing the stack of unopened mail toward him, he began opening the day’s missives. With every envelope he opened, he pictured himself slitting Mr. Gobner’s throat.  As he did his regular morning task, it occurred to him his boss was in danger of dying young.

Smiling, Bradley began to consider how he could make it happen.

Still not perfect, but you get the drift.  We know Bradley is angry, and we know he is going to kill Gobner.  But, most importantly, the entire office does NOT KNOW it, so it will be a surprise when it happens.

We may be writing fiction, but want our characters to react the way real people would react in a situation, and we want to show they are behaving that way.  Nothing is more boring than being beaten over the head with the storyline; which is what happens when we tell the reader what is happening, instead of allowing the reader to discover it.

I regularly slip into this mode when I am writing my first draft.  I frequently do not see it until it is pointed out to me, because I can’t see my own work as well as I can see yours. (My child is perfect, yours has bad habits.)

I am fortunate in having people with a good eye who spot these things, and point them out.  There are times when the telling is so subtle, that even when it is pointed out, I can’t see it.  That is when a good editor will step in and say, ‘This is an opportunity to show how Bradley is feeling. I don’t care that he is mad –  I want to know how he feels.”

Thank you for allowing me to make things a little clearer in my own head. Now, I will get back to opening my correspondence.

Heh – heh – heh.



Filed under Adventure, Battles, Books, Fantasy, Humor, Literature, writer, writing

2 responses to “Show and Tell

  1. Another great post, Connie!

    As well as showing how characters are feeling, it’s also important for the reader to be able to visualise a setting, especially if it’s significant to the plot. For example:

    “The couple sat on the park bench. It was dark and the moon was full.”

    That doesn’t really conjure much imagery. whereas if it was changed to something like:

    “The ebony sky served as a backdrop for the moon’s full luminescence, As the couple perched on the old iron park bench, the shadows of the surrounding trees and bushes created ghoul-like images on the grass.”

    Now a reader can see the setting much clearer in their minds and relate to where the couple actually are.

    I just thought I’d throw that in the melting pot to complement your post!



  2. So true Carlie! The environment is part of the experience, and those small brushstrokes set the scene without distracting the reader.