Wednesday, January 26, 2011
In the Zone with Zee: The Original Dilemma: Show, not Tell!!
26th of the month, and I'm back on Tabby's Nocturnal Nights for the monthly Agony Zee advice column. Usually, I feature 2 queries sent in by writers with 'issues & dilemmas', but today I'll have only one topic up. Why? Because it is a quintessential aspect of writing, made even more resonant in the field of writing romance. You guessed it - how to show and not tell in your story.
On this note, here's today's column:
Dear Agony Z
I keep being urged to “show, not tell” by my crit partners. They say what I give isn’t enough, but I don’t understand, since I do give descriptions and explanations. Can you please enlighten me here?
Signed — The one who doesn’t get it.
“Show, not tell” is probably the first line you heard when you joined this career. It is probably the most passed-around piece of advice in writing. It doesn’t really get better with time either though, sometimes droning into a sort of litany you get fed up with.
However, there has hardly been most precious advice in writing. In essence, it is what writing is all about. Anyone can string a few sentences together to give an account of a happening. The author, though, goes further, bringing life to this episode. How? By “showing” and not “telling.”
Let’s go to the roots of this statement. “Show” v/s “tell”. What does it imply? Let’s take an example.
The sky was a clear, powdery blue, and the brilliant sun hung like a golden orb in its vast expanse, bathing the world below with bright rays that could blind the eyes when it reflected off water.
It was summer.
Both of these sentences say the same thing, but which one held more appeal? Anyone can tell you it is summer, but what can you as a writer provide your reader with what summer is like? While the first sentence “shows”, the second merely “tells”.
This can also work into planting the setting and giving your reader a feel of where the story takes place. Your story can take place in summer in England. Good. But where in England? Summer as seen in London is very different from summer as seen in the country. Another example could be what summer is like in a dry area like Las Vegas and summer in a humid place like Miami.
“Show, don’t tell” can deepen your story too, and present your writing voice, as well as your character’s mindset. Take the following statement:
He was as sinful as chocolate.
You can use this to describe your hero, but frankly, any woman can tell you a man is as sinful as chocolate. What does the woman you’re writing about, your heroine, think? Say you have two women vying for the same man. Both can describe him as in the above statement, but do you think this would ring true? How about giving your reader more? This can be done by “showing” them what each thinks of the bloke in question, without simply “telling” what he is like.
One woman can say – he was as sinful as chocolate. Like a Mars bar. All hard and dark on the surface, but take a bite and you get to the heart of him, where he was soft and sweet, with just the right amount of sugar merging with the melting bitterness of the dark cocoa coating that held him as the whole he was.
The other woman could say – he was as sinful as chocolate. Almost like extra rich, 70% cocoa extra dark Lindt slabs. Polished and so smooth on the surface, with a crispiness that remained even after you’d taken a bite. It didn’t end even when the delectable concoction started to melt on your tongue, when you got that potent rush of bitterness that stung the taste buds, making you crave more even as you wince. And then the hint of sugar kicked in, soothing and bringing bliss disproportionate to the sharpness that had just invaded your senses. That’s what he was like, an addiction she loathed yet one which she always gave in to when he overcame all her defenses.
In the above paragraphs, you take the same sentence and expand on it, bringing a uniqueness to the story, to your voice, to each character. It can wrap your reader in a world where they hang on to your every word, where they get lost in the meanders of your pen.
How do you do this? By “showing, not telling.”
Now, let's say you need to describe something - bed sheets. Different people will 'feel' the sheet in different ways.
Look at the following examples, and see how many different women are portrayed through one single description:
Like a soft summer breeze drifting along her skin...
The sensation of smooth white sand trailing along her fingers, reminiscent of a the drifting grains inside an hourglass...
Like the skin of a man after showering off the exertion of exercise, smooth, cool, yet with a hint of lingering warmth that permeated all the senses...
Now let's use something else - a brand. What, and how, can you show with a brand?
Many will say dropping the brand name itself in your work is enough to show, like this:
She was dressed in a Chanel suit. – This shows she has money.
But like with chocolate above, you have this superb springboard to use to bring uniqueness to your work, to immerse the reader even more into the story and characterization.
Look at these examples using the Chanel suit:
She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the tweed, lapelled jacket reminiscent of the first creations of Coco Chanel.
– This shows that the suit is old. Either she clings to old stuff (Miss Havisham-like), or the suit can be an old discard she bought in a second-hand store.
She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the tweed, lapelled jacket reminiscent of the first creations of Coco Chanel, except for the bright, vibrant colours of the fabric and its crease-free treatment which left the lapels crisp even after long, drudging day.
– This shows a brand-new suit, as the crease-free treatment is a new concept and the colours a trend of recent seasons. She has money and uses it to regularly update her wardrobe. She is fashion conscious and consequently, can be thought to be a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman.
She was dressed in a Chanel suit, the bright colour of the fabric competing with the sparkle of the Swarovski crystals and the blinding gleam of the platinum jewellery at her throat, ears, wrists and fingers. The bling factor was echoed in her strappy silver sandals and the chunky, heavy metal chain on her custom-made, lizard-skin Birkin. An Hermes scarf trailed out of the bag’s opening, the pure silk showing ladders in its weave where the delicate fabric had caught on the gigantic Tiffany diamond ring on her left hand
– This paragraph shows you a woman who has money and loves to flaunt it. However, the fact that she combines so many brands and is so much a show-off highlights that she may be new money or trying hard to show that she has the moolah. She is also a fashion victim, which can suppose a neurotic personality and a ruthless one at that too. Or, it can show a woman who is not self-assured at all and wants to fit in desperately, but awkward and trying too hard, manages to compromise all her chances.
A few details here have helped to present a different picture at every single example. Yet, we started with the same woman and the same suit.
You 'show', and it's this 'showing' that 'tells' your reader what you want to convey.
There you are - 'show, not tell'. I'd love to hear your comments, and if this article was helpful.
Got a question for Agony Zee? Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with your concern/issue/dilemma.
Author of stories about love, life, relationships... in a melting-pot of cultures
Zee is an author who grew up on a fence - on one side there was modernity and the global world, on the other there was culture and traditions. Putting up with the culture for half of her life, one day she decided she'd stand tall on her wall and dip toes every now and then into both sides of her non-conventional upbringing.
From this resolution spanned a world of adaptation and learning to live on said wall. The realization also came that many other young women of the world were on their own fence.
This particular position became her favourite when she decided to pursue her lifelong dream of writing - her heroines all sit 'on a fence', whether cultural or societal, in today's world or in times past.
Hailing from the multicultural island of Mauritius, Zee has been writing for close to a decade and has had 3 novels published so far (under other pen names). After a stint in the publishing industry, on the 'other side of the fence' as an editor, her goal today is to pen wholesome, fulfilling stories and help fellow authors, whether as critique partner or as freelance editor.
Find out more about her by checking her blog