Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Finally Get It

We've all heard it. Show, don't tell. There's too much telling. I don't want you to tell me, you need to show me. Well that's all fine and good, but huh?

I've gone back and forth over the past year trying to wrap my mind around this concept. At its core it makes sense. Sure, we're telling a story but a good writer shows what's going on, allowing the reader to visualize the scenario.

I'm reading The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman and had an a-ha moment last night. The chapter titled "Showing Versus Telling" opens with the following:

Don't tell me you love me. Show me.

A-ha! I can certainly relate to that. How many of you have said that (or at least thought it) to a loved one? I don't mean to alienate the male readers, but typically this is something women say to men. We complain that your actions don't show the love you say you feel. We don't want words, we insist, we want action.

Mmm-hmmm. Show, don't tell.

Lukeman goes on to say:

Another problem with telling is that it makes a text read more like a synopsis than a work of art. With this type of writing, you often walk away feeling as if you've read an outline of a story, a description of what's supposed to happen, of what characters are supposed to be like, but you don't feel as if you've experienced any of it, as if you've walked in the characters' shoes, cried or dodged bullets with them.

After reading the chapter I think I've done a fairly good job of catching myself when I'm about to tell. There are several scenes where I start by saying "Mateo watched as the woman crossed the room." By dropping "Mateo watched," it turns into showing. "The woman walked across the room." I've already established that the story is told from Mateo's perspective; I don't need to keep reminding the reader.

I hope this helps those of you struggling with showing vs. telling.

32 comments:

Robin said...

Melanie, that was really helpful! I'm glad you write stuff like this, because then I don't have to read the whole book.

I did it. I'm sick in bed today, and I signed up for the NaNo. I'm scared, but I'm gonna do it.

There was no Mexico region to sign up for. I tried to sign up in Mexico to show Melanie Solidarity.

Melanie Avila said...

Robin, have I mentioned that I love you? Really, I do. :) I'm glad this post helps. I've struggled to really understand this so when it clicked I knew I had to share.

I hope you feel better. We both have sore throats although Ibis seems to be feeling worse than me.

Let's form our own NaNo group (I think you can do that). What should we name it?

Janna Qualman said...

I know what you mean about wrapping your head around the concept... sometimes I think I overanalyze it (what DON'T I overanalyze...) and make it too hard.

I always try to write things out as I see them happen in my head, as if I were watching it unfold before me. That seems to help in the process of showing.

PS. I think "the woman walked across the room" could be taken further, too. The orange skirt swished around the woman's legs as she flamencoed across the room. Granted, not everyone flamencos across the room at every turn, but you know what I mean (even if I didn't spell it right). ;)

Melanie Avila said...

Janna, I know what you mean. That wasn't actually from my story. :) I think in that scene she sashayed, while flicking her hair out of her eyes, lol.

Janna Qualman said...

Ooh, I like it when they sashay. :D

K.S. Clay said...

I love those "ah ha!" moments. I remember not too long ago part of my manuscript was dragging and I couldn't figure out why until I realized I'd gotten into the habit of telling. I started working with the five senses again (my way to remember how to show not tell) and it perked back up.

Travis Erwin said...

It's nice to have those moments isn't it. I like the way the show me you love me example bring it out.

Turkey Lurkey said...

I require a 'warm up' period. I always start a story with more telling and less showing. But, by the time I have reached the 5th page, I am deeper into 'character'. (If that makes sense.) I often need to do a complete re-write of my beginnings.

Robin said...

I think we have a mutual admiration society! Let me just sashay over to the medicine cabinet...

I'd love to make our own NaNo, but doesn't it have to be a place? (I still don't really understand it all.) If so, I think we should give Mexico a chance. It is way under-represented. If not, I think the Ibis Group is a great name. Ibis will have his own groupies!

Janna, you should do this, too. I know you want to...Come on! Flemenco over here!

WendyCinNYC said...

I'm in awe of you Nano people.

That's a lot of pressure!

Rachel Burton said...

My first novel was full of filtering words "He saw," "he heard," "he felt," etc. Even worse, sometimes I'd put "could" in front of them! "He could hear the birds" instead of "The birds chirped happily to one another." It was an editing nightmare!

Nadine said...

Ooh, I love the "Don't tell me you love me, show me!" That helps so much!!!

I love the book tips you are giving!!

Thanks!

Robin said...

Do I hear a bit of longing, Wendy? Join us! We will conquer the world from Ibisland!

Wendy, I am a total wuss, and I'm a non fiction writing comedian. I am going to suck so big time, it's not even funny. You guys can rock this! There's no pressure. It'll just be fun. (That's what I keep telling myself, and I haven't thrown up once.)

Sorry, Melanie. I'll shut up now. You're probably thinking, "Get your own freaking blog!"

ac said...

"Another problem with telling is that it makes a text read more like a synopsis than a work of art."

This is the part that gets me, Mel. My WIP is a wannabe literary book. Sometimes I wish I was interested in writing Grisham or Brown type books - where showing is important but the outcome doesn't have to be "art."

Melanie Avila said...

Welcome KS! I try to remember the five senses thing but I start with smell, then move on. So things are just stinky. :)

Melanie Avila said...

Travis, yes. I can grasp the concept but that really put it in perspective for me.

Melanie Avila said...

Turkey, now I don't feel so bad about mine. Thanks. :)

Melanie Avila said...

*sashays over to Robin*

I don't know if I want to name it after my husband... Can we name it after shoes? The Slingback Six? Assuming we can find a total of six people?

Oh, and I still don't have a real idea for my book. I'm trying to go with your suggestion but nothing has sparked yet.

Melanie Avila said...

Wendy, join the fun!

Melanie Avila said...

Rachel, I have a few of those.

*hauls out red pen to kill the coulds*

Melanie Avila said...

Nadine, I'm glad it helps!

Melanie Avila said...

LOL Robin, I feel like I've been taking over yours with my bowel movement stories, so chat away!

Melanie Avila said...

AC, that's the line that resonated with me the second most. No one wants their story to read like a book report and pointing it out like that really drives that point home.

Zoe Winters said...

I think I must have won the man lottery since my guy is very affectionate.

Robin said...

The lack of answers from Wendy of Janna make me think six will be a stretch. I totally understand not wanting to name our country after your husband. I love the "slingbacks". It could also refer to our incredible wit!

If it were named after anyone in my family, it would be to awful to print. "Obnoxious Teenager World" hardly has any ring to it. "I Think Kevin Should Go Out To Dinner With His Grandparents World" is worse.

I'll vote for the Slingbacks!

Melanie Avila said...

Zoe, mine is too. :)

Melanie Avila said...

Robin, I think we have a winner! I have a couple people I could wrassle up. Is Spy doing it? That's three. If it's just the three of us it could be "The Slingbacks: Odd Man Out", or something about Always Keep a Spare... or The Third Shoe is to Replace the One I Jammed Up Your @ss... you know, something like that.

Robin said...

Love it!!!

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Melanie:
Great example!

I always look out for "felt" in mine. I nearly always know that's telling.

I also look for RESULTS. I.e., Rather than saying the room was cold or felt cold to my main character, I show them putting on a sweater or shivering or rubbing their arms to keep warm or whatever. The result of what the condition is.

Melanie Avila said...

Erica, yes! I have started watching for that too. Don't say the person is scared, show them trembling, etc.

Lauren said...

I am struggling with showing verses telling and this really did help. Thank you so much.

spyscribbler said...

This is definitely one of my favorite books! It's so hard not to tell. I struggle with it incessantly!