Julie Pitzel has been a receptionist, radio DJ, bill collector, telemarketer, administrative assistant, community college instructor, and an expediter (aka professional nag). She’s been involved in the Houston writing community for many years including two years as President of a local Romance Writers of America Chapter. She writes paranormal fiction from a geodesic dome south of Houston, where she lives with her husband and a pair of cats. This is her third appearance in Heart’s Kiss.
TELL, DON'T SHOW
by Julie Pitzel
I can hear it now, hundreds—thousands—of experienced writers screaming at the title of this article. Wrong! Heresy! Complete BS!
How dare I flout one of the most basic tenets of writing? And of course, I’m not—not really. Writers hear “Show, don’t tell” so often that sometimes we need a reminder that telling is okay. That sometimes, telling is better for a particular scene.
For those new writers out there, showing is providing the reader with sights, smells, tastes, emotions, etc., allowing the reader to experience everything through the Point of View Character. Showing brings a reader into the story. They smell the smoke as hot ashes from a forest fire sear holes in their clothing. They’re moved to tears by a starving child pleading for food for his sister. They walk with the hero through pitch black caverns, while the steady drip and splash warn of an undiscovered pool.
When the scene is critical to the plot or character development, a writer should show the reader that scene. Readers don’t want a brief description of the car accident; they want to be strapped into the driver’s seat when the heroine’s Camry plunges through the barrier and teeters on the cliff’s edge.
But there are some scenes, bits of dialogue, and observations that don’t need to be shown. Indeed, showing would only bore and frustrate the reader—and avoiding that is a rule everyone agrees on. Here are a few times when telling may be the better option.
Tedious Dialogue: Most conversations only hold interest to the participants and would bore a listener to tears. Our job as writers is to make those conversations...more: more romantic, more tense, more humorous, more coherent. But occasionally our characters have conversations that we can’t improve. They’re necessary to move the story, but the details aren’t important. This would include an exchange with a walk-on character: The cab driver discussed the weather and football for the half-hour drive while I wondered what happened to the Camry’s brakes. Or filling in other characters about an event or conversation shown earlier: I told Helen about the accident without mentioning the sliced brake line. The reader doesn’t need the back and forth exchange, they just need to know the conversation took place. Rather than showing the conversation, we describe it.
Transitions: When the characters move to a new location or there's a jump in the story’s timeline, we have to ground the reader. Let them walk through the door with the hero. But when the character is returning to the apartment described two chapters ago, it's not necessary to show it again—unless there's a critical change. This can also be done with familiar locations: a gas station, a department store, a fifties-style diner. Each of these locations brings an image to the mind of the reader. Depending on the action within that location, it may become necessary to show the reader more detail, but the simple description will provide enough information to start the scene.
Repetitive action: In the movie The Karate Kid, we see Daniel doing chores for Mr. Miyagi. He waxes cars, sands the floor, paints the house. In each instance we see the beginning of the task, then the film cuts to Daniel completing his assignment. They didn't need to show him performing wax-on/wax-off for each car, we knew he'd waxed each one. We can do this with writing also. Show the heroine struggle to loosen a single lug nut, then tell the reader she got better with each one. Show the detective knocking on a couple of doors, then tell the reader he knocked on nine more. The reader understands and isn’t frustrated by the repetition.
Mundane action: And then there are the dull tasks, the normal, everyday tasks. They aren't interesting and they don't move the story, but for the sake of continuity the reader needs to know a character showered or cooked dinner or raised another zombie. But we don’t need to show the routine tasks.
Discretion: Foul language, excessive sex, abuse, gross, or disturbing behavior. The explicit details may not be right for the publisher, genre, or target audience. In my horror short story, “The Dance”, some gruesome action happens. I didn't want to show a lot of gratuitous violence, so I showed one instance and then told the reader “every turn revealed more blood and gore.” We can get the point across by showing a limited scope, or telling that the character cursed like a drunken sailor. The reader will fill in the blanks.
Showing is important for a satisfying read, but we can't do it with every scene. It would be exhausting, boring, and confusing. Showing is a clue to the reader that the details and actions being described are important to the plot or for character development.
Show when the specifics are needed to bring the reader into the story. Tell when the particulars aren't vital. Now excuse me, I need to go calm a few writers.
Copyright © 2017 by Julie Pitzel.
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