How I Like to Show

by Dani J Caile

If there’s one thing I always like to keep in mind when writing, it’s ‘show’ more, ‘tell’ less.

At first it’s difficult to see the difference and also to see why it’s important to know the difference. When you write a story, you tell it, right? Yes, but from what distance? Would you like the reader to be engrossed in your writing or to be a mere passive participant of your work? I hope it’s the former, you’d like the reader to ‘be there’, to feel every breath, every action of your characters. (NOTE: there’s nothing wrong with ‘telling’ your story, authors have been doing it for thousands of years. It isn’t called ‘storytelling’ for nothing. But what is the difference? An extreme ‘show’ would be to use Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’, whereas the other side of the coin would be to write as a journalist).

‘Showing’ seems to be a ‘magic key’, though overuse could lead to ‘heaviness’, and unless you want a book like ‘The Waves’, brief moments of ‘telling’ are needed to move the plot forward.

So, give you an example? Okay. let’s ‘tell’.

Bob walked down the street to buy a packet of cigarettes because he was dying for a smoke. He met Bert and they went to the shop together. 

Nothing wrong with that, right? I even added the reason for the action. Yawn… anything good on TV? Well, TV is a great example of how to get your reader ‘involved’. Where is your reader in this passage? The reader can see, from across the street, a man walking, meeting another and going to a shop. Dull. The grammar is 3rd person point of view past narrative, the only thing with more distance is if I’d somehow used passive. That would’ve put the reader in another town.

How can I make this passage better by ‘showing’? There are a few ways. Anton Chekhov said ‘use description’, the old “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – a bit dramatic. Here are some ways to ‘show’ (you can find this advice anywhere on the internet).

1. use a character’s point of view (POV), adding their feelings, senses, thoughts and reasons

2. use dialogue, write in scenes

3. cut back on repetition and unnecessary information, known as ‘info dumps’

Let’s see the ‘tell’ passage again.

Bob walked down the street to buy a packet of cigarettes because he was dying for a smoke. He met Bert and they went to the shop together.

I’m going to change it to 1st person POV past.

I walked down the street to buy a packet of cigarettes because I was dying for a smoke. I met Bert and we went to the shop together.

A touch better, but dull, so dull, and still ‘telling’ the story rather than ‘showing’. Who’s got the remote control? Now, let’s enter the head of ‘Bob’, still using 1st person, but as an internal dialogue…

Dying for a ciggie, christ, dying. Money, got the money, c’mon where’s that shop?

Mmm, interesting. Let’s work on the whole passage with added ‘external’ dialogue…

Dying for a ciggie, christ, dying. Money, got the money, c’mon where’s that shop?

“Eh up, Bob!”

“Eh up! Gotta fag?” Stroke o’ luck, Good old Bert, he’s always got a smoke.

“Nah, clean out, man, clean out.”

Shit. “Oh, right. Look, I’ll just go down to the ABC and get some, okay? Be right back.”

“I’ll come with ya.”

Great, all I need, someone to hold my hand.

This is showing what is happening, the reader is right there, inside Bob’s head. Too close? My preference in longer pieces is to use 3rd person past narrative ‘show”, changing a few lines, creating a small separation with comfort zone, but we’ve done so much already, moving from the Ladybird Easy Reader…

Bob walked down the street to buy a packet of cigarettes because he was dying for a smoke. He met Bert and they went to the shop together.

…to the ‘up close and personal’…

Dying for a ciggie, christ, dying. Money, got the money, c’mon where’s that shop?

“Eh up, Bob!”

“Eh up! Gotta fag?” Stroke o’ luck, Good old Bert, he’s always got a smoke.

“Nah, clean out, man, clean out.”

Shit. “Oh, right. Look, I’ll just go down to the ABC and get some, okay? Be right back.”

“I’ll come with ya.”

Great, all I need, someone to hold my hand.

How do you feel? Are you there? Are you a passive reader or standing right there with the character, dying for a ciggie? The remote? Here, but don’t flick.

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