I volunteered to judge a writing contest.
That means I’ve spent the past few days reading manuscripts that range from almost ready for prime time to please stick a fork in my eye and twist.
Probably the biggest issue in new authors’ writing is the tendency to “tell” instead of “show.” Established authors throw that complaint around relentlessly, shrieking show don’t tell! with the fervor of cult leaders urging new recruits to shave their heads and coat their naked bodies with peanut butter and feathers.
I try to elaborate on the judges’ score sheet, explaining that the best way to tell readers the weather was warm is not to spend six paragraphs draining the thesaurus of all its synonyms for sunny.
But I’m not sure how helpful that is. And I wish I could take each new writer by the arm and point to the series of photos hanging over my bed.
They aren’t dirty, at least not in the way you’re thinking. They show a sequence of images from a hike I did with Pythagoras six years go.
It was the end of summer, and we set out with our dogs to hike to the 9,000-foot summit of Mount Bachelor.
The dogs were young and fit and had done similar hikes before, so with plenty of snacks and water in our pack, we had no reason to worry.
At least not until Ozzy began to limp.
We were near the summit, and Pythagoras knelt in the dirt to inspect Ozzy’s front paws.
“They’re blistered,” he said. “Yesterday’s swim maybe softened them up too much.”
We considered our options. Ozzy weighed 80 pounds, too heavy to carry even if he’d allow it. The flesh had begun to peel off his paw pads, and we knew he couldn’t hike for two hours over dusty lava rock to get back to the car.
“Hang on,” Pythagoras said.
He reached down and removed his own shoes and tugged out the laces. I watched as he peeled off his socks and eased them over Ozzy’s front paws, taking care to pad the undersides. Then he used the shoelaces to secure the makeshift bandages in place before standing up to pull his shoes back on.
“Ready, Oz?” Pythag asked.
I looked at my husband. “You’re going to hike down the side of the mountain with no socks and no shoelaces?”
“Sure. It’ll slow us down a little, but we have to go slow for Ozzy anyway.”
So we made the long trek back to the car with Ozzy moving gingerly in his sock bandages and Pythagoras stopping every hundred feet to offer him water.
By the time we got to the car, Pythagoras had blisters on his feet, but Ozzy was mostly OK. We stopped at the vet on the way home, and then bought doggy hiking boots for future use.
So that’s the story. Do you notice anything about those few sparse paragraphs? (No, we’re not judging the writing – it’s 6 a.m. and I haven’t had breakfast yet).
My point is that I didn’t tell you a thing about what kind of guy my husband is. I didn’t say he’s kind, or physically fit, or smart in a crisis, or that he puts the needs of others above his own.
But you still came away knowing all that about him.
That’s what I mean by showing instead of telling. There are plenty of other ways to do it with dialogue or action or a character’s inner thoughts, but you get the idea.
If you’re a writer, what tricks to you use to show instead of tell? As a reader, are there any authors you think do an exceptionally good job with this? Please share.
Here’s the man of the hour, by the way. Cute, huh? Pythagoras isn’t so bad, either.