Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Show don't tell – what the hell?

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.


Linda G. said...

Wow. Sensitive AND a nice...*cough*

You are one lucky lady. And a great writer, too. :)

Patty Blount said...

Don't ever let him go. I will fight off Janet Reid for him, I swear!

Seriously, you're right. I immediately thought all those things in my head as you told the story and you didn't ever say it.


Great lesson, Professor Fenske. Thank you for sharing it. I must now go repair the mascara halfway down my cheeks.

Jenna McCarthy said...

I LOVE it! My 7YO is taking a writing workshop right now and "show don't tell" is the mantra I tell her every day. Yesterday she was writing a story about a girl who was "very nice," and I told her to pretend she couldn't use those words; how could she SHOW how nice this girl was? She came up with several cute examples (Her baby brother loved her best because she always had time for him; she saved her money to buy halloween costumes for her friends, etc.). I think we may have a novelist on our hands. :)

Michele Shaw said...

Two great men you have there, and what an excellent way to make your point! Thanks.

Danica Avet said...

That is SO sweet! *sniff* You're very lucky, Tawna.

I still struggle with the show vs tell problem, but I think I'm getting better. At least...I don't get as many comments from my CPs that I need to show more. It's a learning process, I think. As much as we hear those chants of "show don't tell", it tends to get easier the more you work on it.

Well, I'm off to buy my pallet of peanut butter. Not exactly sure why my chapter is requesting it, but they said we were having a special ceremony in a few weeks! ;)

Candyland said...

Awwww. Not that's sexy.

Michelle Wolfson said...

Ha ha ha ha ha please stick a fork in my eye and twist. Where do I know that feeling from?

Jenna Wallace said...

This is a fantastic example! And your story was so evocative in imagery, I could picture it. Love it!

Kristina said...

Awesome post showing us the light! What a cute puppy dog, btw!

abby mumford said...

yes, the whole SHOW DON'T TELL thing is constantly repeated, but i think this is the finest example i've ever read.

as patty said, thanks professor fenske!

*puts apple on your desk*

Stephanie said...

Great post!! Great story! Sounds like something that should be in a Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul!! :)

Penelope said...

Great example, Tawna!! Writers can really benefit from this post and everyone can benefit from that picture. ;)

Unknown said...

What a sweetheart! Great showing.

Gabriela Lessa said...

That really helps with the whole show don't tell thing. It's often hard to follow the rule, and you do it so well. Going back to my MS right now to see if I'm doing it right!

Unknown said...

Loved this blog! I'm working on getting better at this.

Steph Schmidt said...

FINALLY! I'm so tired of authors saying Show don't tell and then not providing an example. It's all well and good to yell at someone but until you show them what correct looks like it won't do any good.

Poor Ozzy! He must have not been a happy camper with the foreign socks on his feet. My dog loathes anytime we put tape on her dewclaws to keep her from ripping them out when she goes running. She hobbles around until she sees the other dogs running then takes off.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

Oh, Tawna, what a lovely way of showing and not telling to "show, not tell."

And now I'm wondering again about the real story behind that random pair of mutilated underpants you discovered on another hike...

Delia said...

A fine example in the prose, Professor Fenske. And a fine specimen in the photo. ;)

I have trouble with this one, too. I know what I should do, but knowing and doing are two different things. I think it's mostly lack of practice. I'll get there. I hope.

Thanks for the lesson.

PK HREZO said...

Powerful point you make. I heard it stated once that the reason we do this is so the reader can make up his/her own mind about the character or scene. If we tell the reader, than we're forcing them to see things our way. If we show the reader, we're giving them the opportunity to figure it out for themselves

Nicole Zoltack said...

A perfect story for demonstrating showing not telling. Us writers learn by reading so examples are always a plus. Thanks!

Sonja Foust said...

Wow, I'm just gonna send people here for their SNT explanations. :)

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

That's so sweet. :)

Great post on showing vs. telling, too.

Lisa Hendrix said...

Great example and great story. Pythagoras would make a wonderful romance hero.

If you're hiking Mt. B, you're probably not all that far from me. Leave a note via the contact page on my website and we'll see if we can connect up - there are a bunch of romance writers in the area.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

Damn, that was good! ;)

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Aww!!! :) Great example, that really helps. It's so tempting to tell sometimes.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

Damn, that was good! ;)

Dr. Goose said...

I think Ozzie was the hero of the story.

Claire Dawn said...

You hear "Show don't tell" all the time. But I've found the best way to learn this is to show, don't tell.

Show an aspiring writer a piece that does way too much telling. It's amazing how much easier it makes it to understand.

But I guess you couldn't do that in a writign contest.

Btw, contest at mine. Stop by.


Linda G, well I'm not saying he's sensitive to ME, but the dog fares pretty well (kidding, kidding).

Patty, Professor Fenske, I kinda like that! Can I smack people with a ruler now?

Jenna, tell her to start practicing her autograph now! :)

Michelle Shaw, now if I could just teach one of them to put the seat down and the other not to pee in the driveway.

Danica, whatever you do, don't drink the Kool-Aid.

Candyland, yeah, it kinda is.

Michelle Wolfson, I'm surprised you have any eyeballs left.

Jenna Wallace, aw, thanks. It's not my best writing, but it makes my point.

Kristina, thanks! He's a pretty old dog now, so at this point, our driveway is a major hike for him.

Abby, thank you! Wait, why is there a bite out of that apple?

Stephanie, there's a CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE DOG LOVER'S SOUL book? I was going to say I need to buy that, but I have a feeling it would make me cry.

Penelope, I took a ton of pictures that day, and there's a series of six that hangs over the bed -- before, during, and after the sock bandages!

Anne, thanks! I made the whole thing up. I'm not even married. (Kidding, kidding)

Gabriela, there are definitely lots of ways to do it besides how I demonstrated. Dialogue often works well.

PK Hrezo, great point about letting a reader decide for himself/herself how things are. I hadn't thought about it that way before, but it makes perfect sense.

Nicole, I'm a big fan of learning from examples. Next up - how NOT to wax your own eyebrows.

Sonja, aw, thanks! Remind them to leave tips in the jar on the counter.

Dominique, yeah, it is kinda sweet. I try to remind myself of that whenever he leaves his socks lying all over the living room.

Lisa, it's possible Pythagoras has inspired one or two romance heroes!

Elizabeth, thanks!

Dr. Goose, Ozzy is the hero of any story.

Claire Dawn, thanks for the heads-up, I'll stop by!

Thanks for reading, guys!

Unknown said...

Wonderful story--you've clearly got a smart and resourceful hubby.

This post reminds me of a favorite quote by Anton Chekov: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Janet Reid said...

Back off Patty! The line for Pythagorus forms BEHIND me!

Seriously though, this is a terrific example.

??? said...

Personally, I find it hilarious that in every picture you take of him his face is completely hidden.

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