Monday, May 11, 2009

Show and Tell

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This is a short tutorial I wrote some time ago for another blog I write for, the Blood Red Pencil. I thought it would be appropriate to post it here as well. It is especially apropos in the mystery and thriller genre - see what you think.


Something I’ve learned about effective writing in fiction is knowing when you are “telling” the readers your story and when you are “showing” it to them. There is a place in any good book for both methods, but the “shown” passages are always more illustrative, while the “told” passages are more narrative. They create two entirely different effects. Instead of telling you the difference, I will show you. Here is a short paragraph, an example of a story being told to the reader.


Bob walked over to the door. He turned the door knob, opened the door and started to walk outside. It was an icy cold winter day so he went back inside in a hurry and put on his coat.


Well, if I’m the reader I haven’t missed anything, I know what’s happening, but the passage doesn’t draw me into Bob’s world, doesn’t let me feel or sense much of anything. Now I’ll rewrite the same passage showing you the story.


Floor boards creaked underfoot. Step by step, across the room. The chill of cold brass felt smooth in his palm as the knob turned. A thunk nudged against the quiet as bolt released from its locked position. The squeak of old hinges cried “please oil me” to Bob as they pivoted. A final push, swing and a step. Whistling arctic wind whipped his face as shivers crept all over him.

Wow. Cold. Bob thought better of his choice of clothing. Slam!

Nippy fingers worked their way through the dark foyer closet, feeling for heavy suede.


In the second example, we see, hear and feel Bob’s world. It’s a much sexier read. By comparison, the first passage is more a simple statement of a sequence of events. In fairness, I did not try very hard to write an impactful narrative in the first passage, because I was trying to emphasize a point. There are cases, lots of them, when narrative prose is just the right thing. A fist, knife or gunfight, for instance, often demands a fast, even hectic pace and needs to be told in a hurry. It usually depends on the pace you want your story to move at; which will be the subject of another post.


April said...

Excellent post!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

That's probably the best example of show vs tell I have ever seen, Marvin!

L. Diane Wolfe

Ted A. Brooks said...

Oh wow, your example was beyond words, it clearly showed the power of words on the mind. I am so thankful I was led to your site.
Angel Blessings

Anonymous said...

April, Diane and Ted - thanks so much. Yes, "Show and Tell" seems to follow us through life since Kindergarten all the way into our careers as writers, eh? LOL

Jean Henry Mead said...

I think detail is great when nothing's happening in the story, but with an action passage you need barebones writing, making every word count (and the right words, at that).

Morgan Mandel said...

The first draft might have more tell than show, but it's fun when you're polishing a manuscript to make it come more to life by showing.

Morgan Mandel

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

This is one of the best examples of show, don't tell, I've seen. Thanks for sharing.

Mark Troy said...

Great explanation, Marvin.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I enjoyed your post, Marvin. I like the way you also noted that regular narrative is important in some cases, too (sometimes we need to tell, not show.) Very thoroughly written.