Thursday, October 05, 2006

Writing Tips: Show, Don't Tell

My apologies for getting this tip up a day late... I'm battling the combined invasion of travel, computer problems, and bronchitis. We shall triumph!

"Show, don't tell" is the first rule of good narrative. As a writing coach, I repeat it about thirty times a week. The art of showing--of giving readers eyes and ears and allowing them to live in a scene that you have created--is what sets narrative apart from other forms of writing. It is behind the phenomenal success of the novel, and ensures that writing will always be the most powerful way to communicate a story.

Over time, "showing" becomes an instinct. In the beginning, most of us need to work at it. There's a certain magic to it that's hard to break down and analyze, but at its nitty-grittiest showing is a matter of choosing your words wisely: specific nouns, descriptive verbs, and evocative adjectives and adverbs.

Let's take "The woman pet the dog" as our example sentence.

1. Nouns. You'll feel quite differently about the woman if I call her a "noblewoman," a "sprite," or a "hag." Likewise, "dog" calls up quite a different mental image if I change it to a "mutt," a "wolfhound," or "her faithful sheepdog." Always be specific when you name things, and pay attention to the mental images each name creates.

2. Verbs. "Pet" will do for communicating action, but "stroked," "tousled," or "gently caressed" will do a good deal better. When you write descriptive verbs, go for the unexpected. How do we feel about a hag who gently strokes the sheepdog at her feet, or the noblewoman who tousles a mutt's ears when no one's looking? When you show rather than tell, you'll find a thousand opportunities to betray character.

3. Adjectives and Adverbs. I love adjectives. Adverbs should be used sparingly: if your verbs are strong enough, they won't need them. But a few well-placed modifiers will do a lot in creating a vivid scene. Is the woman beautiful and the dog ugly, or the other way around? Is her hand shaking... is the dog whimpering?

"Show, don't tell" will serve you faithfully through any sort of story. Lord Byron said "Words are things." Make sure the things you create are full of substance and life, and readers will hunger for more.

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Anonymous Rachel said...

Well put as always. :) I like your demonstration. I shall have to use something like it for my own students. :)

6:30 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use the "show, don't tell" line so often in my middle school class. What a surprise to have one of my graduated students find your website and link it to my school site. Thanks for your good ideas. Joan LaMarche

10:27 p.m.  

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