Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

“Reading and writing are acts of empathy and faith. Guard that trust carefully — in this rapidly changing business, it’s the only sure thing.” ~Erin Keane
"Never give up. And most importantly, be true to yourself. Write from your heart, in your own voice, and about what you believe in." ~ Louise Brown

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it."
~Jesse Stuart

"A writer's job is to take one thing and make it stand for twenty." ~ Virginia Woolf

Friday, April 22, 2011

S is for Showing vs. Telling

SHOWING vs. TELLING is an empirical concept (meaning that it can be entirely subjective whether a scene deserves showing or can be told just as effectively). It emphasizes the superiority of dramatization, demonstration, enactment, and embodiment over mere telling. In To Have and Have Not (not such a great title btw), Hemingway could have told us something rather abstract-- "Shots were fired"-- but he chose instead to make us see and hear: "The first thing a pane of glass went and the bullet smashed into a row of bottles on the show-case wall to the right. I heard the gun going and, bop, bop, bop, there were bottles smashing all along the wall."

So when your work is critiqued with these hated words: SHOW DON'T TELL, think of these words: 

dramatization
demonstration
enactment
embodiment

And that's what you do. Just remember, however, that there are times when TELLING is okay. It's up to you, the writer, to determine what seems right in each instance-- because clearly one cannot SHOW the entire 100,000 manuscript.


(This post has been inspired by and in some instances, directly quoted from A Handbook to Literature, 8th Edition, by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman)

28 comments:

  1. Amen! I always write the senses in front of me when I'm writing. It helps.

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  2. I totally agree. That's one of the reasons I first started reading Hemingway, because he didn't include a lot of description in his stories; he spent more time showing rather than telling. I don't like stories where the characters spend a lot of time describing themselves or other people; the stories where the characters are described through their actions and dialogue are much better and more fun to read.

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  3. I'm better than I used to be with this. It's so hard though. Trying to keep tight writing, it's just so much easier to tell. I love Hemingway.

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  4. I love the Hemmingway sample - such a perfect illustration of showing not telling!!! Thank you!!!

    Take care
    x

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  5. This one is hard for me because I come from a nonfiction background - PR/journalistic writing. I had to go back to school while writing my memoir and take some Creative Nonfiction classes to get this concept. Still struggle with it, but it's getting better.
    Karen

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  6. Oh, very good! Love the "dramatization, demonstration, enactment, embodiment" -- great way to think of "showing."

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  7. Find that balance between showing and telling is so key (and so challenging). When in doubt, show. It's the difference between looking a photograph of a beautiful landscape and actually being there.

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  8. Excellent advice. I'm always trying to show as much as I can, but there are those times when I have to tell. As with many other things, it's important to find that balance.

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  9. You have to constantly remind yourself not to tell. It's so much easier to tell. Showing is much better writing and gets the reader more involved. it's actually more interactive for them.

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  10. Thanks for reminding me that it's ok to tell sometimes. It's kind of daunting to think of having to SHOW everything for 100 000 words!

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  11. Ah yes, this is tricky. It's hard to explain show vs tell to people, given that a few extra or less words can turn a sentence from telling to showing and vice versa.

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  12. YES! I must put those words on a post-it and stick it to the computer :)

    Happy Easter everyone!

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  13. Good S post - I think readers enjoy the mental process of working things out for themselves, instead of merely receiving information, but, as you say, there's a time and place for both! Liked the Hemingway example. All good info to keep in mind. Thanks.

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  14. I feel so sorry for the kids at school these days. They grow up playing Show and Tell. They must be so confused.

    Jai

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  15. Two Ds and two Es - that should be easy to remember! And I hate the NO TELLING rule - OF COURSE we tell, we're telling a story, aren't we??? Just don't overdo it.... ; )

    Today's A-Z on Tessa's Blurb: S is for Sex Sells

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  16. It's the same with food writing, I try to show people what something tastes like to make them try to experience it. Just wanted to say hello from a fellow A-Zer.

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  17. This is one of those things that I always catch myself having mixed up. Too much telling, not enough showing. During revisions I read so much telling, telling, telling. Once I've edited and made my revisions, I can enjoy the showing!

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  18. Thanks so much for your visit to my blog and your comment. Yes, God gave us closure before we even left Hawaii and it has been a special gift to be able to share that with others.

    I don't think I'm very good at "show, don't tell."

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  19. I need to work on my showing, but I also need to be careful not to let my word count expand ridiculously again. ;)

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  20. Great post! I find I get much better at the "show, don't tell" the more I write. And I can see it more clearly when I'm critiquing too. See! Practice does make better!

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  21. I pity all my critique partners when I first started out. I know how exasperated they must have been.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

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  22. great, great, super-helpful post, and I know this is something many writers struggle with. Me, too at times! :D Thanks, Karen~

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  23. 'Show don't tell' is a mantra in all good creative writing classes and we all need reminding about it every now and then.

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