Monday, March 1, 2010

Show, Don't Tell

I've been editing my own books and critiquing several other people's over the past few weeks. There's one saying that keeps coming back to me:

SHOW, DON'T TELL

What does this mean?

Well, I'll tell you.

No, wait, I'll show you.

Tell: Kate felt angry.
Show: Kate's gut clenched, and she suddenly wanted to hit him.

Showing makes everything more vivid. I've also seen a lot of conversations summarized rather than dialoged. Give us the conversation, unless the characters are telling other characters about something we, the readers, already know, e.g., "Dan brought his parents up-to-speed on the whole bathtub-in-the-tree situation."

Show us what the characters say.
Show us how the characters feel.
Show us everything. But only once.

My favorite show-don't-tell quote is from Anton Chekhov:

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

It always gives me shivers to read that. I may have to embroider it on a pillow or something.

9 comments:

Disgruntled Bear said...

I'm still looking for a good editor or critiquer for my YA fantasy books. Can anyone recommend someone?

StephTheBookworm said...

Great post. It makes the English major side of myself smile... if that makes any sense. :) It also makes me smile when people use proper punctuation and grammar. Sigh. Such a nerd.

Disgruntled Bear said...

Hi Steph,

I am COMPLETELY with you on the punctuation thing. A misused semicolon (whether by commission or omission) sets my hackles up.

I'm a little looser on grammar, since I usually write first person narrative and the imperfect quality of it makes it read more like someone's thoughts.

On the plus side, an emotional tie to correct punctuation and grammar makes someone an excellent proofreader!

It also makes proofreading bad writing physically painful, though. Trust me on this; I've been teaching since 1995.

StephTheBookworm said...

Do you teach college English? That was what I wanted to do for a while, but then I decided I didn't want to get my PhD and I know a lot of professors have that.

I really wanted to teach English at a college because I've always had this dream that I could convert other people into being readers by having them read awesome, contemporary stuff. For example, I was thinking for Brit. Lit, instead of reading Beowulf like I had to, I'd have them read Sophie Kinsella instead hahaha.

Disgruntled Bear said...

Hi Steph,

Actually, I teach college Psychology. I always wanted to design a "Psychology in Popular Culture" course and have my students read ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and watch BENNY AND JOON and A BEAUTIFUL MIND. Stuff like that.

That would be sweet.

As for the Ph.D., if I had my twenties to live over again, I wouldn't have gone to grad school. my last year there, I looked around my department and realized that there wasn't a single professor whose life I wanted to emulate. So I went "rogue" and taught as an adjunct for University of Maryland all over the world. I enjoy teaching, but writing was, is, and always will be my passion.

StephTheBookworm said...

Wow, the idea you have for that class sounds awesome! I love One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I haven't gotten around to the other two yet, though. That's pretty neat that you've gotten to teach all over the place. Do you travel still or just teach at the one school now? Were you planning on becoming a professor, or did you want to be a psychologist?

Teaching has always been of interest to me. I even did a year long internship in a 4th grade classroom which I loved. It was a hard decision for me when I decided to drop out of the teacher certification program this year, but my passion is books so I know that becoming a librarian is the best job for me. I have to get my Master's for that, but at least it will only be a couple of years. Maybe later in life I'll get a Ph.D in English and teach at a college, but for now, I figure I'll be content... or ridiculously happy, actually, sitting around books all day lol.

Disgruntled Bear said...

Hi Steph,
The idea of being a librarian, and spending your professional life surrounded by books, is a wonderful one.
I've read your blog, and I think it's a great career choice for you. Best of luck!
BTW, would you be interested in doing a review of MINDER on your blog? I should have ARCs in May.

StephTheBookworm said...

Of course! I would be honored to review Minder! Thanks for asking.

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