Thursday, September 29, 2005

Show Vs Tell Handout #1


The following paragraph is not poorly written… but it could be better.
Joe entered the diner nervous about meeting Clara. This is it, he thought. I’ve got to do everything right this time or she’ll leave me for sure. He could see Clara sitting at a booth with her back to him. He knew it was her because she was wearing the hat he’d given her for her birthday. She’d been so happy when he gave her that hat! Was it a good sign that she was wearing it today? He thought it was.

Notice that following paragraph gives more details. It never actually says that Joe is nervous. Instead it shows us what Joe does when he is nervous. It also invites us into Joe's world and opens his heart to the reader. We "see" who Joe is by his actions and reactions.
The luncheon crowd packed the little diner like cows in a cattle run and Joe's fingers anxiously twisted the brim of the Stetson in his hands. This is it, he thought. I’ve got to do everything right this time or she’ll leave me for sure. He forced himself to ignore the over zealous and incredibly buxom, waitresses who vied for his attention. Finally he spied the back of Clara’s hat peaking over a booth seat. The sight of it forced his heart into a little dance that beat hard and fast against his ribs. Her laugh fill the room and memories flooded his brain. She laughed like that when I bought her that hat for her birthday, he thought. Its dainty blue flowers and the merry little bird sitting on its crown now fairly shouted to him. "You can do it", the small bird sang to his heart. Courage blossomed and Joe took his first conscious step toward fidelity.

Writing, particularly longer works, need both showing and telling. "Telling" allows the reader some down-time and lets them breathe between more intense "showing" scenes. The following middle-ground paragraph both shows and tells. It is acceptable under many circumstances. I've indicated the show areas with an (S) and the tell areas with a (T).
(T) Brian stared at the wreckage that two hours before had been his home. The tornado hurled debris for some two hundred yards and most of his possessions were now unrecognizable. (S) He bent to retrieve chunk of wood that was once a part of his dining room table. Farm worked fingers ever so gently ran across its still smooth surface, pausing only when they arrived at piece of straw now bizarrely embedded in its surface by the force of the storm. (T) The table had been carefully preserved by his family for over a hundred years -- and now it was gone. Brian could hold it no more. (S) The wood slipped from his fingers, and clattered to the ground, resting in the rubble scattered at his feet.


Although using direct narrative is more acceptable in nonfiction editors are still impressed with a writer’s ability to 'show' wherever possible. Do not discard this technique simply because you can get away with it when writing nonfiction.

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