Lessons Learned #23

Show, don’t tell!

Yesterday I found an article via Twitter from ‘Now Novel‘ entitled ‘7 Must-Obey Rules for Writing Dialogue.’ You can find it here. It is a very interesting article, so go ahead and read it. For me, the rule that interested me most, and hasn’t let go of me since, is rule No.3, called ‘Use implications and hidden meanings.’ It basically says ‘show, don’t tell.’

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Ever since I started writing a year ago, this sentence kept popping up: ‘show, don’t tell.’ At first I found this so strange. Aren’t writers ‘telling’ a story? How can you ‘show’ something on paper. But I thought I understood what they meant so I started describing scenes and thoughts in my novel. I told the reader the colour of the wallpaper, described what the weather was like, and what my main character (MC) was thinking. Those kind of things. I really didn’t get it.

Then a few months ago I did an online course in which they showed us a piece of text of Graham Green. I’m sorry, I have no idea from which book it is, but here it is:

I got to think, he repeated to himself. I got to think. He opened the street door and went out. He didn’t even wait to fetch his hat. His hair was thin on top, dry and brittle under the dandruff. He walked rapidly, going nowhere in particular, but every road in Brighton ended on the front. I’m too old for the game, I got to get out, Nottingham;

In this piece of text the MC is not described as such. It doesn’t say ‘The man is anxious and old, with hardly any hair.’ It isn’t ‘told.’ Instead we, the readers, are being made aware of the appearance of the MC with little snippets of information strewn throughout the text. Yes, some bits are described as such, but of course there is no other way. This is not a movie, you’ve got to write it down somewhere. But the text is not a continuous stream of information, the reader ‘has to work’ to get it. This intrigued me big time.

And then I read Rule No.3 yesterday. As the title of the article implied, it was about dialogue. I hope I am not plagiarising now, but I need to show you what it says to explain my lightbulb moment. The following two pieces of text are the examples that they give you, first what not to do and then what you could/should do. It was a true eye opener for me.

“Ever since your brother, Richard, invented the invisible ray, people have been disappearing in enormous numbers!” Blanche exclaimed.

“Have you heard from Richard?” Blanche asked.
He shook his head. “My brother and I don’t speak much.”
“Not even after—?”
“Especially not then.”
Blanche said softly, “All those people.”
“Have you finished running the reports?” he asked.

The first thing that jumps out in the first piece of text is, of course, the mentioning of the brother’s name, Richard. You would assume that the guy knows the name of his brother, so mentioning it is superfluous and if you think you need to remind the reader you assume the reader is stupid. Big mistake.

What struck me most though was the way things were hinted at, insinuated, in the second piece of text. The first piece is a typical example of ‘telling.’ All the information is given to the reader on a plate. You don’t need to think about it, but at the same time you get no information about Richard’s brother, or his relationship with Richard either. The second piece of text is far more interesting and, to be honest, also more ‘normal.’ Sentences are short, not always finished and insinuate information that has already been given to the reader earlier, no need to repeat it. And instead of ‘telling,’ it is ‘showing.’ Not so much in descriptions of a visual nature, but in the actions and words of the characters.

When I thought about it and started to apply this ‘show, not tell’ to my own novel, that I am re-writing at the moment, I ran into a problem. I was cutting almost half of my text. First of all I was scrapping almost all adverbs. Ouch. I had worked so hard to find the right ones. Then I found that I had to scrap a lot more as a lot of text was superfluous, I didn’t need to repeat what I had already mentioned a page ago. I was getting scared now. Would I have a novel left over when I finished?

This example above, however, gave me new hope. As you can see, the second piece is a lot longer than the first piece of text. Next to this it is a far more pleasant read and provides far more information to the reader than the first one. So this is definitely the way to go. It’s just going to take ages to figure out how to apply it to my own story.

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What you also need to keep in mind is that with ‘showing’ it may take a while before the reader gets the whole picture of the MC. Dropping little bits of information about his/her character takes time and you need to keep in mind that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Giving little snippets of information will keep the reader interested though, giving the reader little hints of why your character does what he/she does. So they will read on, wanting to find out more and more about the MC’s history, to be able to figure out his/her way of thinking and actions. That’s what’s making your character interesting and will keep your reader entertained. And that’s what you want…

Have a Happy Writing Weekend!

Do tell me what you think about this article :)