Friday, September 4, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

Yesterday, September 3, 2009, was my anniversary, or would have been. I am never sure of the proper wording for such moments. Had Ellen lived we would have celebrated our ninth anniversary together, but I digress. The point I am striving to make is that I was thinking about Ellen, recalling one of the few good events I associate with this time of year, and remembered the first time I encountered the concept of Show, Don't Tell.

Ellen and I hadn't been married long—or perhaps it was before we married, I cannot recall for certain—when she read some of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. This was not the first time I had shared my writing with others, but it was the first time I received feedback that prompted a major restructuring of the story itself. The first time someone offered a criticism that forced me to adopt new techniques for writing my tale.

It is incredibly difficult to read your own work and spot your deepest problems. The knowledge of what was intended causes you to miss mistakes. I, like most writers, turn to others for insight into where I am going wrong.

Nowadays I have a writers group that regularly and routinely shreds my work. I am forever grateful for their blunt, sometimes even harsh, comments.

Before I had the writers group to turn to, however, there were many times when I begged, cajoled, guilted, and even bribed people to read over my work; then eagerly, anxiously, and with great trepidation waited for their opinion. Usually their probing analysis consisted of a shrug followed by, “It’s nice.”

Let me say, on behalf of all writers everywhere, It’s nice does not constitute useful feedback.

After such a tepid response, I always asked follow up questions. Those I so pestered often misinterpreted my queries as a request for my ego to be stroked, and so they continued to give polite praise that boiled down to a longer version of, “It’s nice.”

With sufficient prompting, a few admitted to not liking or understanding some element, portion of a scene, or character. My first reaction to a negative comment was to explain what I was trying to do, hoping my critic would offer a suggestion on how I might better achieve my intended goal. Inevitably this caused people to believe, perhaps with some justification, that I was defending what they disliked. Rather than run the risk of offending me and perhaps starting an argument, most people at this point looked for ways to change the subject. Realizing the futility of trying to continue, I would acquiesce.

Ellen, however, read what I had written and offered feedback that went beyond the norm. She realized I wasn’t looking for my ego to be stroked or attempting to defend turgid prose. She was not a great editor, but she was a voracious reader and had won at least one national award for something she wrote as a teenager. After reading my then second chapter, she struggled to find a way to explain what she didn’t like. After several different attempts, she said, “You’re telling me a story rather than showing me what is happening.”

I would like to claim that a light-bulb went on over my head at those words; if so it was a single, short-circuiting LED. My initial confused reaction was, “Isn’t telling a story what fiction writing is all about?” After further discussion, I realized she objected to three places where characters described something that had happened to them earlier. Insight kicked in and I asked, “You think it would be better if I rewrote those parts as flashbacks from their point of view?”

Ellen thought this was a great idea, and after considerable angst on my part I agreed. My reservations stemmed from the fact that these changes required throwing out a hundred pages of existing material and starting over from scratch. I am not a fast writer, which made the scope of the task all the more daunting. Plus, the proposed alterations would only work if I also took a hatchet to the intricate outline for my first book, an outline that took years of painstaking effort to create. Still, what is the point of good feedback if you don’t act on it?

And so, with gritted teeth, I snapped my existing structure apart and rewrote a major portion of Gods Among Men. Chapter two became chapters two, three, and four, each of which included an extended flashback sequence focusing upon a major event that sets in motion all that follows. The difficult changes were not as hard as I first feared, nor even the most challenging ones I have had to make. (The award for Editing Challenges that Most Resemble the Bataan Death March still goes to the plethora of changes I made to chapter three in the last year.)

The resulting chapters where significantly better than what had existed before, and by introducing flashbacks into my story I added a tool to my repertoire that resolved problems in other parts of the story.

Since that time, from countess authors, I have heard the line, “Show, don’t tell.” It is almost always the right choice for how to write a scene, but I still find it a struggle to follow this advice. It is easy to let telling slip into a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Sometimes it is hard to discover the phrase, sentence, or description that shows what is intended. Writing something like, he said angrily is easy. Describing the look on a character’s face, the sound of their voice, and their gestures so that the description conveys anger without explicitly using the word anger or any of its synonyms is quite challenging.

Ellen’s feedback showed me a way to become a better writer, and that was much more valuable than others telling me, “It’s nice.” I wish she was still around so I could show her how much I appreciate all she did for me.


  1. I agree with what you said about criticism. I had to beg my sister to read anything that I wrote, and she would never get back to me with feedback. I am never sure she read it, but I couldn't get anyone else to even go that far. It really takes it out of your ego to know that you have to beg and beg for someone to even touch your writing.

    That being said, I was also confused about the best way to go about doing 'show not tell' writing. I like to write the verbal part of the stories, more often than not to the detriment of the descriptions and surroundings. If my story is lucky, I pepper it with some semi-interesting descriptions before submitting it to be read by someone. Showing what is happening instead of telling is harder than most would think, but the end result is definitely worth the extra effort. Well done, Brant.

  2. It is hard to keep your ego intact when what you care about so much seems to matters so little to those around you. For myself, I had to reach the point where I decided the act of writing itself was my reward. Even if no one else ever looked at a word I wrote it didn't matter. All that mattered is that I wrote the story down.

    As far as consistently and effectively writing in the "show, don't tell" pattern, welcome to the club. I think I am getting better, but it is a long slow slog to master.