Showing vs. Telling: Round One

I’ve always enjoyed a good bit of advice by way of adage, even if I’m not all too sure what it means:

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

“You jiggle more with laughter than you do with lard.”

“Choke on a bone, don’t come home.”

“Show, don’t tell.”

You’ll come across that last one more than once. And you’ll tuck it away as fact. But what does it even mean? Make the assumption of fact an action at that.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Writing All Wrong:

I hear the “show vs. tell” mantra to know that telling something I shouldn’t be doing in writing. But should I? Doesn’t “telling” also have its place? How are they all that different. I figure you will have some smart answer to this so I await your response.

—Rachel Kovac, Thornton, Co.

Smart answer? Me? Maybe.

I’m going to take this one to two rounds, as there’s a lot of the arena to be covered. I’ll let “Telling” have its say in Round Two. But with “Showing,” here are a few key takeaways.

Showing is overrated.

Is it now? It’s a critical part of the narrator’s framework, but I think it gets too much time in the sun.

While it takes you from:

“Joe was scared.”

to:

“Joe’s face ghosted white, his chin quivering.”

Too often writers will go for the show gusto with:

“Joe’s face drained of color, leaving it a ghastly white. His chin and lips quivered incessantly, and bubbles of uncontrollable drool gurgled from behind his teeth. His whole head went clammy as a cold sweat broke out unbeckoned…”

All right, all right, we get it. Sho’ no’ mo’.

Show only what needs showing.

“Three uneven chairs surrounded the makeshift table. They were chipped in odd places, one on its back, the others within the seat. One of the chair legs had succumbed to some termites, while the other two looked just as wobbly by virtue of age and disrepair. Together, they made a trio of—”

We don’t need to know all about the dumb chairs. Are you showing? Sure, but it’s showing too much. Like the half-ton hirsute neighbor of yours who doffs his wife beater once he finds out the apartment pool is now open.

If you’re looking to improve this kind of lame writing, then make it compact. The first sentence would have done nicely.

Show what’s worth showing off.

“Bubble, the goldfish, flicked his shimmering fins within the sullen confines of the tank. His bulbous eyes flitted to and fro, darting this way and that, like he were searching for a lost treasure.”

Don’t care how much you’re trying, but showing me Bubble’s escapades in the tank isn’t going to take this story from the mundane to the transcendent. Show me everything you want about a story not worth telling, and you’re showing in vain. Now, if you took this approach:

Bubble, the goldfish, flicked his shimmering fins within the sullen confines of the tank. The M1 Abrams afforded little in creature comforts—”

Stop. You win.

Show, but don’t overshow.

“The crazed zombie tumbled from the fridge. Paul yelled back in horror.”

The amateur stumbles here, inexpertly finding an area of improvement with the “yelled back in horror” part. Here’s what we get:

“The crazed zombie tumbled from the fridge. Paul shrieked with panicky terror.”

“Aha,” you may think, “shrieking shows the emotion so much better!” What about the tautology of “with panicky terror?” Yeah, not everyone catches that, unless there’s a way to shriek with “meted control,” or “disciplined effect.” And no, I don’t think anyone’s “shrieking with delight” at the sight of a refrigerated zombie.

Showing: simple, but elegant. Try too hard, and you’re trying too hard.

How do you make showing work for you and your writing?

(You can read the take on telling here: Showing vs. Telling: Round Two)

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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