Tag Archives: show vs. tell

Monday Craft Tips #4: Show, not tell, part 3

This is the third in a series of craft tips about Show, not Tell. As you know (if you’ve studied the craft of writing), this is a popular saying among writing instructors. It means that writers should avoid long passages of narrative summary (descriptions and observations narrated in the authorial voice) and cut to the action. This piece of advice is not only hard to get right, it is also a huge problem for those writers who have a natural bent for narrative summary.

Today, I thought I would share three examples of Tells by that wonderful author
Jane Austen, the mistress of narrative summary. Telling the reader what to think is generally regarded as a no-no. Readers object to it, and it can lead to lazy writing. So how would you rate the following, all taken from Miss Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Miss Bennet’s pleasing manners grew on the goodwill of Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and though the mother was found to be intolerable, and the younger sisters not worth speaking to, a wish of being better acquainted with them was expressed towards the two eldest.

Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy’s progress through his book as in reading her own, and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, “How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way!”

Elizabeth wrote the next morning to their mother, to beg that the carriage might be sent for them in the course of the day. But Mrs. Bennet, who had calculated on her daughters remaining at Netherfield till the following Tuesday, which would exactly finish Jane’s week, could not bring herself to receive them with pleasure before.

Notice that all of these passages are what I refer to as “Tells”, where the reader is told what to think, so the question becomes, did you mind being told what to think?

I think most readers find these passages charming and funny, and don’t mind at all. So how does RicePortraitJaneAustenMiss Austen get away with it?
First of all, notice that all these passages are written in a distinctive voice, they are not bland and boring bits of prose, they do not sound like something taken from a newspaper or report. What makes them so wonderful is that they have a spark to them, an attitude, a personality. This is the main reason, I believe, why agents are so eager to find voice when they look at manuscripts. Because they know that an author can get away with more tells if the writing is as glorious as this.
Secondly, notice how closely observed these observations are. They are not cliches, they are specific and concrete and they show off the personality of these characters.
As in all things to do with writerly craft, the question is, how much can you get away with before the reader notices or minds? I submit that any writer who does tells as well as Jane Austen does can get away with murder.

 

Image: The “Rice Portrait” of Jane Austen, done by Ozias Humphry R. A. in 1788, when Jane was 13 years old.

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Watch out for those ‘tells’ in your prose style

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Next: I participate in a self-publishing webinar.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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