Thanks for the moment of self-reflection and honesty. It's okay; you can breathe again. Today I'm going to tackle the all-important dichotomy of 'Showing' versus 'Telling.' Bear with me, understanding this concept will revolutionize your writing and lead to stronger, more compelling manuscripts.
Let's first define what we are talking about with a simple example. Read the following sentence:
"Mmmm...pie," Rachel said hungrily.
Seems pretty straight-forward, huh? Yes and no. It does cut to the chase and tell the reader that Rachel is hungry, but it falls flat. In other words, it's rather boring and doesn't grab the reader and entice him to continue. Now consider this:
Rachel eyed the pie and zipped across the room to where it sat on the counter, tempting her with its sticky, sweet aroma.
A bit more exciting, right? There are a couple of things at work here. First, I took out the unnecessary dialogue (dialogue in itself is okay, as long as it is furthering the story, which the previous example was not). Second, I used interesting action verbs. Notice, I resisted the temptation to write 'immediately zipped,' because it would have been redundant ('zipped' implies quick movement). Third, I added detail. Now the reader knows it was the pie's aroma that enticed her to hunger for it. This version gives the reader a better sence of the main character. She yearns for the pie--lusts after it even--but she is withholding. Maybe Rachel's on a diet. Here is a way to show the readers she is on a diet without actually having to tell them she is. The revised sentence also helps the reader to visualize the scene. If you close your eyes, you can actually picture this happening (more so that the first draft).
Do you get it now? I'm beginning to see the lightbulb above your head. Let's take it a step further. In both versions, the same thing is happening (more or less)--the main character hungers after a pie--therefore, the subplot here is identical. It is the characterization that leaps of the page in the second example. This illustrates the connection between the show/tell dichotomy and the character-/plot-driven one. A novel that mostly tells will feel like a plot summary to a reader. But a story that shows action and details about the characters within scenes will come alive for the reader.
This is what agents and editors are looking for. The problem arises when we, as writers, assume we are doing this right, rather than take a reality check. Here's what you need to do: flip (or scroll) to a random page in your manuscript. Now look line by line. Are you showing or telling? Consider the following:
- Count the number of -ly words on the page (in Word you can highlight the section and find for 'ly'). Could these adverbs be replaced with stronger action verbs? Are they redundant, as in the 'immediately zipped' example? Would your readers be able to gather the same information without that word (i.e., from another sentence)?
- Is there dialogue that is unnecessary? Does each line of dialogue further the plot or add to a character in some way? Does the dialogue fall flat? Is there another way to express the scene using action verbs and no dialogue?
- When introducing a new character, do you give a laundry list of character-traits (i.e., Rachel is bossy, mean, a know-it-all)? How can you show these traits throughout your novel without having to list them?
- Are there places/opportunities to add quirky details about your characters (without telling)?
- Are the scenes easy to visualize? How can you add detail and 'show' what's really happening in a way that comes alive for the reader?
Nope, just kidding. You've got one more thing to do. Gotcha again. Now you must look at your query with the same critical eye for 'showing' versus 'telling.' Agents want to read the voice of your manuscript in the query. After all that revising, why give them a query that summarizes your plot without 'showing' them your characters? Liven it up!
Here are some helpful resources to aid you on your way:
One of the best discussions on this issue can be found at QueryTracker. Several rules of thumb are given (with accompanying examples) and practice exercises are also included. Make sure to read their blurb at the end which mentions those times when 'telling' is appropriate.
Barbara Poelle wrote a great article entitled 'Traiting Up' about how to use quirks to create a deep, rich, and believable character. This is a MUST READ if you are receiving rejections from agents stating that your manuscript sounds plot-driven and not character-driven. Heck, this is a MUST READ for all writers.
The Fractured Keyboard details how to spot and avoid those pesky adverbs. She also goes into why they don't work and gives examples of how to rewrite without them.
Author Marsha Skrypuch gives her Five Word Rule for Dialogue, a great guide for cutting out unnecessary dialogue that might be slowing down your manuscript (and thereby committing the sin of telling, instead of showing). Note: not all dialogue is unnecessary--just the dialogue that does not further the plot or characterization of your cast.
This is a lot to learn, but once a writer masters this, it changes the way you write (and rewrite--which is just as important).
UPDATE (04/07/09): After creating this post, I started a new thread on the Children's Writers and Illustrators Message Board about 'Showing' versus 'Telling.' Several members of the site provided a great exchange on the topic. Check out this post's comment section to read some examples provided by Verla Kay, creator of CWIMB, and contributing member Harrietthespy.
UPDATE (04/09/09): Literary agent Rachelle Gardner posted an excellent article about why it is important to SHOW in your query and not TELL.
UPDATE (04/10/09): Writer Elle Scott over at Writing Advice for the Absolute Newbie describes when and how to use speech tags (i.e., "Mmmm...pie," Rachel said hungrily). Poor use of speech tags can equate to 'telling,' but when used appropriately (and sparingly) they can liven up a section of dialogue.
UPDATE (04/14/09): Blogger and aspiring author T. Anne (from White Platonic Dreams) summarized an article on '9 signs you're telling, not showing.' Examples are given for each symptom, as well as ways to switch the telling into showing.