Kath here. Please welcome guest poster Jessica Bell to WU today. Jessica is the author of Show & Tell in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Transitions from Telling to Showing. We asked her to guest with us today to share her best tips for this crucial craft skill.
Jessica Bell addresses one of the most common yet elusive pieces of writing advice–show, don’t tell–in a uniquely user-friendly and effective way: by example. By studying the sixteen scenes she converts from “telling” into “showing,” not only will you clearly understand the difference; you will be inspired by her vivid imagery and dialogue to pour through your drafts and do the same.” ~Jenny Baranick, College English Teacher, Author of Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares
Jessica is an Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, who also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca. Follow her on Twitter @MsBessieBell, Facebook, or on her blog www.thealliterativeallomorph.blogspot.com.
Take it away, Jessica!
When I first started to write fiction and send my manuscripts out for feedback, the first and most frequent thing my readers said was SHOW, DON’T TELL.
In theory, I understood what SHOW, DON’t TELL meant. But it was almost impossible for me to put it into practice after comments such as, “Why don’t you show your character sitting in a café getting frustrated with her friend? I’d really like to see that happening, rather than just being told it’s happening. It would give us a lot more insight into their characters.”
Okay. So how do I go about that? I’m not sure I understand how you can’t see it happening when I’m telling you it’s happening. What’s the difference?
I never truly understood the difference until I’d accomplished it by accident one day. My motivation was that I needed to increase the word count in one of my manuscripts. I had a 60,000 word novel that needed 80,000–100,000 before I could submit it to agents.
I combed through my manuscript, marking scenes I thought I could expand. By the time I’d finished reworking the first scene, the concept clicked. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. My writing had become cinematic, it had movement, my characters were three dimensional and I didn’t even have to mention their personality traits because I was showing them. But above all, my writing evoked emotion. This is what successful showing does. It uses the five senses (and sixth) to evoke an emotional response from your reader without telling them how you want them to feel.
So let me give you an example.
Here’s a scene that is completely telling:
Tamara and Fran are having lunch at a café. They are seated outdoors. But it seems useless meeting at all when Fran is so flighty. It’s ridiculously frustrating talking to Fran when she’s like this—off in her own little world. She doesn’t even acknowledge what’s being said when Tamara raises her voice! Perhaps she’s in love.
Okay, can you identify which things we could be showing here?
What I think we can show here are the following attributes:
(be) in love
So with this in mind, let’s bring this scene to life with some showing:
“Can you pass the salt?” Tamara holds out her hand.
“Hmm?” Fran hums and looks across the road at the kids playing Frisbee.
“Hun? The salt.” Tamara glances at the kids, screws up her nose, and contorts her mouth to the left.
“Oh. Right.” Fran passes the ketchup.
Tamara groans and reaches across the table for the salt. As she leans over her plate, her blouse dips into the mayonnaise.
“Crap! I need a serviette.” Tamara points at the napkin holder. Francine is resting her chin in her palm, squinting at the sky, giggling to herself.
“Fran!” Tamara bangs her fist on the table. Crockery rattles.
Fran’s smile fades as she jolts upright. “Huh? What’s wrong?”
Tamara stands, scrapes her seat backward, reaches for a serviette, and shakes her head. “I can’t count on you for even the simplest of things, can I?”
Tamara dips a serviette into her glass of soda and rubs it on her breast. “So. Who’s the guy?”
“Tammie?” Francine sighs. “Have you ever wondered why we only see yellow butterflies in this area of town?”
What do you think? Would you have written something similar? Can you pinpoint how I’ve shown these specific attributes? Tell me in the comments.