Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Assignment 5 - Show Me - Don't Tell Me

By Cindy Sproles
Who knows how many writers hail from The Show Me state but if there aren’t tons then the concept of Show…Don’t Tell, must have originated in Missouri.
Show vs Tell is a common writer’s blunder. We bury ourselves in our work-in-progress making strong points and telling the reader every little move, that we often fail to see our reader backed into a corner wondering what hit them.
The concept to show the reader what is going on around them in the story can be tricky but once you figure it out, you’ll hardly ever slip up again. What is Show vs Tell?
It’s easier to SHOW (get the pun?) you what it means than to TELL:
Joan was seventeen. She loved Bruce but her parents wouldn’t allow her to see him. One day she marched into the living room, pointed her finger in her father’s face and told him he was wrong to judge Bruce. She told her father Bruce held down a good job at the paper mill. He worked hard to earn a good income and it didn’t matter if he was three years older than her. She loved him and she was going to marry Bruce, regardless of her parents disapproval. She would graduate Olsen High in two weeks and she’d meet Bruce at County Court House down town. They would be married, like it or not.
This is a paragraph of strictly telling. The writer gives the reader a blow-by-blow picture of Joan and her intentions to marry Bruce. (Are you yawning yet?) I thought so…Now let’s flip this paragraph around and SHOW instead of tell.
“I’m seventeen, Daddy. I love Bruce.” Joan brushed her bangs away from her face. Her father dropped his newspaper across his lap. His face grew red.
“So you say,” he said. A puff of smoke twirled from his lips and the smell of tobacco permeated the room. Joan fanned the stench.
“Bruce might be three years older than me but he’s responsible. He’s worked at the paper mill for the last year. They pay him good.”
“You’re too young and that boy is not the same kind of people we are.”
“What people?” Joan stomped across the room. A calendar from the local ESSO Station hung over the fireplace, its edges curled from the heat of the fire. Joan yanked the calendar from the wall and slapped in into her father’s lap.
“In two weeks I graduate Olsen High. Like it or not, I’m meeting Bruce at the County Court House and we’re going to get married.”
 When you write a story and show the reader the action, they fall into the story. It’s as though a bubble forms around them and they’re standing in the corner of the living room watching the story unfold. They smell the scent of Joan’s father’s cigar and they feel the tension between the two. The reader instinctively looks around the imaginary room and sees the fireplace. They catch a glimpse of the curled edges of the calendar and they get the anger that erupts. The reader is now part of the story…living the action, listening to the argument and almost wanting to interject their two-cents worth into the conversation.
Telling gives the reader a blow-by-blow narration of the events that are happening. It even implies to the reader how they should feel rather than letting them experience their own emotion. The reader detaches and their interest wanes. Within minutes your reader will lay the story down and claim they got nothing from it.
Involve your reader. Prick the senses. Show them the scene. Allow them to live in the imaginary bubble that makes a well-written story come to life. Fill your sentences with rich description, strong dialogue and well-structured emotion.
How do you recognize when you are TELLING? Step back. Read your story paragraph by paragraph. If it reads like a grocery list then you need to rework. Choose strong verbs and good action tags that pull the reader into the story. Let them experience the uncomfortable feeling of being in the middle of an argument between this teen and her father.
 It’s that easy.
 Here you’ll find a few simple exercises that will help you learn to show over tell.I learned these years ago through a critique group and they've stayed with me since.
1)      As a writer you understand what emotion is. Below you will find phrases that tell. Focus on how our character looks. Observe Joan's eyes, her mouth, her facial expression, then in one sentence show her emotion. Describe it.
(Telling) Joan was mad.
Now show Joan mad:_________________________________________________________

(Telling) Joan was happy.
Show Joan happy: _____________________________________________________

(Telling) Joan was embarrassed.
Show Joan embarrassed:_________________________________________________
2)   Now…what would Joan say if she were mad? Write a line of dialogue that expresses  
Joans anger: ______________________________________________________________________

3)      Strong verbs will help you SHOW rather than tell. Think of Joan’s frustration and write
three verbs that show her anger: ______________   __________________   ____________________

4) The traits of a character will also help you SHOW the reader things about your character.
    (Telling) – Bruce was responsible.
    List several character traits that can SHOW how Bruce is responsible
**Hint: hard-working, honest, helpful.  Now you try:
____________________   _________________________   ________________________

5) Let’s put it all together. Below are 7 sentences that tell. Your job is to rewrite them into a paragraph that shows:
     1)  Jean has $10
     2) She wanted a dress at Macy’s that cost $25.
     3) She tried on the dress.
     4) Jean wondered if she’d ever earn the additional $15.
     5) She wanted to buy the dress on credit.
     6) The clerk said the dress was on sale for $7.
     7) Jean was thrilled she got the dress on sale.
 By the time you finish these simple exercises you’ll have a better grasp of SHOW vs TELL. Take your work-in-progress. Read it paragraph by paragraph. Do you show or tell? Now let your imagination go and rewrite.