Saturday, July 18, 2009

Show and Tell

Current Reading: Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Inspirational Quote: "Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." -— Mark Twain

Show, don't tell. If there's an older or more oft-repeated piece of writing advice, I can't imagine what it would be.

If a member of Critters critiques 10 pieces of writing in a week, they get an Award. I earned one last week. Ten short stories. Over 50K words read. Over 6K words of critique written.

It was an interesting spectrum of work, from very raw to quite sophisticated. My most frequent suggestion was show, don't tell. Self Editing for Fiction Writers has a great section on this, going into detail on when it applies (almost all the time) and when it doesn't (in summary). The Elements of Style (4th ed.) alludes to it in Rule 16: Use definite, specific, concrete language. Cohen's Writer's Mind: Crafting Fiction has it as part of chapter 8. Burroway's Writing Fiction has it as the 3rd section.

It's everywhere, but not everyone GETS it.

Example: "Rosemary was beautiful."

It's one of those tricky words. If I say someone is beautiful, everyone knows what I mean. It's a nice short way of conveying Rosemary's charms.

Actually, nobody knows what I mean. "Beautiful," is a vague word, a summary word. It sums up a set of impressions and presents a conclusion to the reader. However, the reader can't work back from the conclusion to the impressions that created it, and those impressions are important. Beauty is different for everyone.

"Beautiful" is a telling word.

As a reader, I'd rather read something like this:

Rosemary walked into the diner in a single, long, lithe movement that drew my gaze from the list of eggs done every which way. I set down my menu and stared as she pulled on an apron and tied up her curls with a fuzzy pink elastic. Her eyes were blue and they shone all the way down inside me until I thought I could feel my toes glow. She came right to my table, her smile turning to a laugh when she had to ask "What'll it be?" three times before I realized she was speaking to me. I ordered the first thing I saw when I glanced back at the menu. I ended up with rice pudding and a side order of bacon, but the indigestion was worth it.

The author doesn't have to tell the reader Rosemary is beautiful. They can figure it out from the narrator's reaction, and they know what the narrator found beautiful from his description of her. The author doesn't conclude for the reader, but presents the evidence in the form of images, word choice, description and action and allows the reader to come to the conclusion.

Do your readers a favor. Be vivid. Be concrete. Be specific. They want to see and hear your words within the theater of their imaginations, and they won't be able to do that if all your giving them is summaries and conclusions.

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