Real Show and Tell for Authors

Author Dale E. LehmanGuest Post
by Dale E. Lehman

You’ve heard “show, don’t tell” so much you’re sick of it. But do you know what it means? Based on numerous discussions I’ve witnessed, many writers don’t. If you can stomach one more spoonful of the subject, I’ll demystify the adage. Plus, I’ll offer a simple writing exercise for honing your showing skills.

Showing is not mere substitution of action for exposition. Okay, sometimes it can be, but action and exposition both have their place. More to the point, you can show — or fail to show — regardless of which you’re writing. The question is not whether you use action or exposition, but how you use them.

Some say it’s all telling, really. We are writers — storytellers — not painters or sculptors. True enough. But our words invoke mental images in our readers’ minds. In that sense we are painters and sculptors. Our medium, rather than pigment and stone, is thought, and this is the essence of “show, don’t tell.” Do we invoke engaging mental imagery? Or do we put readers to sleep?

So what makes for strong mental images? Action. Motion engages our attention. Long ago, I introduced a character pacing about, pondering some problem. My initial description of the room consisted of a mere itemization of its contents. My wife didn’t like the result, so I rewrote the scene. She still didn’t like it. I rewrote again. Nope. This may be when I started losing my hair! Fortunately, desperation gave birth to inspiration. Switching gears, I described not the room’s contents, but the character’s shadow moving over the room’s contents. It worked! The formerly passive scene turned active. The reader could see and follow that shadow and, through its motion, discover the room.

I’ve heard writers gripe that showing requires more words, whereas telling can be brief. Wrong. Showing is showing not because of drawn-out descriptions of action but because of strong, active verbs. Even in a chase scene, weak verbs equal telling. To demonstrate this, and to help you develop your showing skills, here’s a simple writing exercise – simple to understand, anyway. It may not be simple to do! First, write a description of something. Count the words. Now rewrite the piece using only half as many words. That’s right, cut it in half. Compare the result to the original. Cut it in half again. Compare results again. Repeat this process until you can’t anymore.

Here is one of my attempts:

“In my front yard stands a tall Norway spruce with branches that swoop gracefully down and then turn up again toward the sun. The dark green foliage seems to drip off of the branches, hanging down in long tendrils. Taller than the house, its scaly trunk is about three feet in diameter, and twenty feet up it splits into three trunks. A few years ago, the upper part of one of those trunks snapped off under heavy snow. The bark is coated with white trails where sap has run down from holes drilled into the wood by the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that stop to feed while passing through late each winter.”

This is 110 words. Half would be 55. Can I do it?

“Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage along swooping branches whose tips turn sunward. High above, the yard-thick trunk forks three spires soaring heavenward, one shattered, testifying to a past snowstorm. Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers pierce the tree late each winter, spilling sap that dries in white trails on the rough bark.”

Note that the information did not change. The tree’s height and girth, its form and color, the broken trunk, and its interaction with the birds remain. But the shorter version employs stronger, more active verbs. The tree doesn’t stand, it towers. The bark isn’t coated with sap, the birds spill sap which then dries. A trunk has been shattered. The longer paragraph isn’t terrible, but it tells too much, whereas the second consistently shows.

Can we halve this again? In this case, not without losing information. But the attempt may be worthwhile, because we are then forced to choose the most important details. Suppose we focus on the birds:

“Late in winter, migrating yellow-bellied sap suckers pierce the Norway spruce towering over my house, spilling sap down the rough bark to dry in white trails.”

Less isn’t always more, but shortening, tightening, and strengthening generally carries your prose from passive to active, from telling to showing. Give it a try!

Dale E. Lehman has published two novels in his Howard County mystery series and has a third on the way. A software developer and amateur astronomer, his writing has also appeared in Sky & Telescope. You can learn more about Dale on his website and his Author Central page.

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13 thoughts on “Real Show and Tell for Authors”

  1. Thanks for a new slant on this. Like POV this is often a tough concept for writers to “get”. It comes up for discussion in my critique group quite a bit and we catch each other on it in spite of each of us being accomplished writers.

  2. Excellent post, with excellent examples. I think many new writers think writing more description is better, but as you’ve shown here, economy of words–but strong, powerful words–gets the job done better. Great teaching moment.

  3. I love the second version. The only weak point is the snowstorm bit. Unless this is important later, it’s probably a red herring. As far as the third, if the story is about birds, it’s fine 🙂

    1. Thank you. The tree is real, as are all of the details. I just hammered them out in the original form to make something to play with. Since there is no context, it’s hard to say what is or isn’t important. You are correct that details gain or lose importance based on the context of the work. In a writing exercise, well, it merely depends on what skills the exercise is designed to develop.

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