I don’t know about you, but I find that dictum Show, don’t tell the thorniest piece of advice about writing. It is so hard to get right. Naturally, when I started to write, I did a lot of telling. Then I got the idea that you should put things in scenes. Great! I thought in my naivete. I’ve got that nailed. Throughout 2010, my first novel kept getting rejected by agents, but they didn’t have time to tell me why. I took a writing course at the beginning of 2011, and found out that tells were ingrown into my prose style like a bad case of kudzu. So I’ve been trying to weed them out. Yesterday, I read a wonderful piece of advice about showing and telling that I hope (maybe) will finally put the whole issue to rest. (For those of you who want to look it up, you will find it in DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle, pp. 66-72.) Compare the following:
The city suffered significant damage in the blast.
The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where the houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies.
The first sentence is clearly a tell, the sort of thing you would read in a newspaper.
The second is far more descriptive, the sort of thing you would find in a novel. Notice that the author of the second piece never tells you that the city suffered significant damage in the blast. He or she conveys this but the use of telling descriptions. Notice that I used the word telling, because (of course) the second piece is full of tells. How could it not be? But the tells pull the reader in because the content of the descriptions are powerful and they have been word-smithed by a careful choice of words.
The takeaway message?
- Do not make anything you write come off as a report.
- Choose to show more often than you tell.
- Remember that you will have to tell sometimes, because your novel is going to be very clunky and long if you don’t have some narrative summary.
- When you use tells, draw the reader in by using emotionally powerful descriptions, then seduce them by using beautifully crafted prose.
Image: British Pathe