When a writer is transitioning from a “telling” into a “showing” writing style, she or he will tell then show, or show then tell. Screenplay writing style is not the easiest thing to break, and old habits die hard. Here’s an example:
I was very scared. As the creature pursued me through the woods, growling and snapping at my heels, my heart felt like it was in my throat. One misstep and it would have me in its jaws, tearing me into pieces before devouring me.
See the problem there? The writing act of “telling” means the writer is explaining something to the reader. With all that stuff about the creature, “I was very scared” is completely unnecessary. As I’ve said in other posts, telling is a form of stage direction, which often comes from growing up in a world of television and movies. As writers we need to get past stage directions. We’re not writing screenplays, we’re writing novels. Stage directions are used by actors to know where their character should go with an emotion. Writers control all their actors, as well as the setting, scenery, etc. It’s up to the writer to provide directions to the emotion, not simply state that an emotion exists.
Going back to the example above, most of the scene described is showing. The reader is told about some unpleasant creature running just behind the character, who is dangerously close to being torn apart. If the writer does her or his job well enough on the showing, the statement that the character is “scared” isn’t needed.
Is it important to show and also to not tell? Yes, because when the writer tells before she or he shows, the showing loses impact. Readers assemble a reality piece by piece. Start with an adjective (“scared”) that covers the totality of the situation, and what happens is that everything that follows “scared” becomes detail in the reader’s mind. The adjective, followed by a description, may even suggest to the reader that she or he can skip over the details, since the main concept (“scared”) has already been covered. You really don’t want that to happen.
Delete the first sentence, and the reader is then required to assemble the fear, via the vaguely-described creature that growls and snaps, then the character’s pounding heart, then the threat of a misstep and consequences. The power in the showing is that the effort on the reader’s part leads to a more profound emotional moment than a telling can ever accomplish.
Another way to highlight telling versus showing is by placing the first sentence at the end of the description. Have a read:
As the creature pursued me through the woods, growling and snapping at my heels, my heart felt like it was in my throat. One misstep and it would have me in its jaws, tearing me into pieces before devouring me. I was very scared.
Here’s how I feel when I read that last sentence: of course the person was scared! Duh! We were just told all that stuff about the creature, and what the character knew would happen if caught by the creature. If you had the same reaction to the last sentence — and you should — you may be getting an idea of what that sort of “telling” sentence does (and does not do) for the scene. With the statement appearing at the end, the final sentence should feel almost insultingly redundant. Although the sentence works on the scene slightly differently when placed at the front, the overall effect is the same; it’s a piece of information that doesn’t do anything to improve the scene, and in some ways may take away from the scene’s impact. Cut it.
If you missed part one of this series on “Show, don’t tell” start with “Glint on Broken Glass.”
Part two is “More About Broken Glass.”
Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!
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