On Monday, I discussed this phrase writers often hear from experts: “Show. Don’t Tell!” Now, “Show, Don’t Tell” represents a very important lesson for any writer, but often times it is a lesson that can be misunderstood or ill-explained, muddled by the very phrase used to denote it. I think that, ironically enough, the phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” really doesn’t tell writers anything. At least not anything they can use. I’ve noticed this as I’ve been working with clients through my writing consultation service. On Monday, I offered a replacement phrase to “Show, and Tell” and it was “Observe and Report.” (Read Monday’s post here.)
Changing the writer’s task from “Showing” to “Observing” switches the writer’s attention from within herself and directs it to the outer world–real or imagined. What I mean by “real” or “imagined” is that it doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction, the principles are still the same.
You see, “Showing” has a very interesting connotation. It implies that the actual writing out of a story is about having something to “reveal,” something to “present,” something to “give” your readers. So what happens is that writers will often want to “give” away everything in the story. They get stuck in relating back story, or in offering very detailed descriptions of everything. Or they get stuck on “the presentation” of it all. They work their butt’s off writing in pretty language and trying their best to sound like Shakespeare. Or they get stuck in “revealing” too much–feeling as if they have to “reveal” something shocking, interesting, or appalling at the end of every single paragraph.
Years of telling writers to “show” in their work have only turned us all into a bunch of circus performers: we jump through hoops, create spectacle after spectacle, and present clown-like melodramas in which plots and characters are too overexposed to be interesting.
Writers become convinced that they are the performers in the circus and don’t realize that, in fact, they are the complete opposite of the performer–they are the audience member.
You, the writer, are the spectator to your own story, and you must act accordingly.
Lastly, switching “Tell” to “Report” switches the personality of a writer from a “town gossip” to–as one reader aptly put it–a “world-class journalist.” The word “Report” carries with it a sense of duty and a deep respect for the career itself. Reporting requires skill, craft, years of study and careful attention to detail. “Reporting” does a lot more justice to describing how to tell a story than the word “Telling” does.
You, the writer, must report your story to your reader after you have witnessed it.
Here are some examples to further illustrate what I’m trying to say:
Example #1: Writing Exercise – At Home
On Monday’s post, I asked you to perform a little exercise. When you tried to “show” and not “tell” your story, you may have come up with something like this:
Mr. Pride and Mr. Scissor were sitting on a bench. There was a lamppost next to them, and the bench was long and green. The park was crowded, but no one looked at the two of them. Mr. Pride finally turned to Mr. Scissor.
“I’ve cheated on my wife,” he said.
Mr. Scissor turned around.
“My god, Mr. Pride,” Mr. Scissor said. “How could you?”
Mr. Pride tried to cover his face.
“I’ve cheated on my wife with your girlfriend,” he added.
Mr. Scissor punched Mr. Pride and he fell on the ground. Everyone in the park noticed and stared.
Example #2: Writing Excercise – At An Actual Park
When you actually went to the park and tried to “observe and report” your story, you might have rewritten your scene like this:
There was a cluster of flies gathering in the spot just above Mr. Pride’s head. Mr. Pride swatted them away and accidentally hit Mr. Scissor on the head.
“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Pride cried.
Mr. Scissor tended to his scalp as the flies buzzed about him, creating a vibration through the air as fierce as a pair of hair clippers. While Mr. Scissor was distracted, Mr. Pride moved to edge of the bench. He eyed the teenage couple laying on the grass nearby to see if they had taken notice. They hadn’t.
After the flies departed, Mr. Scissor patted Mr. Pride gently on the shoulder and Mr. Pride’s spine stiffened. Mr. Scissor’s hand was as hot as fire. Mr. Pride resented the fact that his best friend’s body temperature was always 20 degrees hotter than any normal person.
“It’s okay, Mr. Pride.” Mr. Scissor said.
But Mr. Pride had already dug his face into his hands.
“I feel terrible,” he said.
“Why?” Mr. Scissor said. “It was only an accident.”
Mr. Pride tore his hands away from his face and examined the lamppost nearby. A large amount of bird droppings had gathered at the base. Mr. Pride’s caught a wiff of something acidic and milky. He cringed.
“They should really clean up this park,” Mr. Pride said.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Scissor. “I guess they should.”
Mr. Scissor grew quiet. He bit his lip. After a moment, he leaned forward.
“Wasn’t there something you wanted to tell me, Mr. Pride?” he asked.
Mr. Pride’s gaze now fell on the bench they were sitting on. He examined the names that were carved into the wood: “Peter” and “James” and others he couldn’t make out.
Finally, Mr. Pride folded his arms and gave a long sigh.
“I think my wife might be mad at me,” he said.
Now, if I was seriously going to tell this story, I would go back and add more elements. I’d try to deepen the characters and maybe fix the dialogue so that it’s not as simple. I would also edit it a bit more. But I hope you can see that my intention here is not to talk about character, dialogue or editing but to try to explain what people mean when they ask you to “show and not tell.”
What came out for you when you did this exercise? Share your two scenes with us in the comments below and tell us what you learned!
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