Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Q: In your writing classes, what is the most common mistake that beginning writers make?
A: The thing that I find myself writing the most often on my students' pages is "Show, Don't Tell."
Show is like watching a drama on TV. Tell is like reading someone's synopsis of what happened in that drama.  Guess which is more interesting...

Here's an example from The Day of Small Things.   I could TELL the reader that Aunt Belvy insisted that Dorothy drive her to the graveyard because she was worried about Birdie.
 That would have been quick and easy -- probably why it's so tempting to do rather than SHOW.  And there's nothing wrong with TELL for some information -- mundane, daily stuff. No need to SHOW your protagonist shopping for a bag of apples and some cereal unless there's something REALLY important about that shopping trip. 
But if you use TELL when there's an opportunity for a dramatic scene, a scene that SHOWS your characters, then you've missed a chance to draw the reader in.
Here's my SHOW example.
                                     ***     ***        ***
She said she needed some fresh air but where in mercy’s sake can she have got to?
            Dorothy stepped out to the front porch and looked through the trees to the path running up the mountain. There was still no sign of Miss Birdie, not in the yard nor out on the road where she usually took her walk.
            “Up in the grave yard, that’s where you’ll find her.”
            Dorothy started and whirled around. A moment ago Aunt Belvy had been sitting on the plastic-covered sofa, seemingly lost in a prophetic trance. Or asleep. Now she was standing, tall and imposing, in the doorway. And she was saying- no, the old woman was confused. Dorothy silently cursed Marvella for leaving this ancient, obviously crazy woman in her care, even as she spoke slowly and loudly into the ear of the prophetess.
            “Why, you’ve had you a bad dream, Aunt Belvy. Birdie’s not in the graveyard; she’s just gone for a walk. I reckon you got a little confused-”
            A bony hand grasped Dorothy’s arm. “Git in your car and crank the engine, young un. I want you to take me up to the grave yard where Birdie is. She’ll be talking to that old woman and I got to go protect her.”
The fingers held her in a pincers grip. “And I ain’t one lick confused.”
Posted by Picasa


Joan said...

That is so interesting Vicki. I'm no writer and I am intrigued at the skills employed.. thank you for sharing.

Helen in SC said...

Sun Dogs!

Desiree said...

Thanks for this insight, Vicki. I have to admit, you're almost at the point of convincing me to pick up fiction again (after 30 years of only having read non-fiction).

Brian Miller said...

excellent this is spot on...if you tell me i will drop your book like a hot coal...boring!!!

Star said...

Showing involves a lot of dialogue, right? Therefore I suppose it is a good thing to learn about. These days, it seems that dialogue plays an ever increasing important part in story telling. Perhaps it is because so many of us watch too much television and we have become used to watching people talking to each other? Some books are almost all dialogue. I don't like those. I actually like to be told a story, which is why I like stories told in the first person.
I liked your example.
I'm really enjoying 'In a dark season'. It is very witchy. Love that. I'm about half way through. I don't rush. I like to read and savour every word.
Since I've read all the previous books now, I'm trying to read your mind and work out what happened at Gudgers Stand. What is a stand anyway? Is it a house on a hill?

Suz said...

aye...that's work

Tess Kincaid said...

I've scribbled "show, don't tell" in my notebook.

Bouncin' Barb said...

Great to know this and thanks for that example. Made perfect sense.

Miss_Yves said...

"Show, Don't Tell."An interesting point of view...
And you show us great photos!

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

Vicki, this is the best example of "show not tell" I've ever read. Thank you.

Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

I'm back. I enjoyed your example so much I forgot to comment on how gorgeous that red camellia is. Hope you & John have a great Easter.

Vicki Lane said...

Thanks, Joan!

Yes, indeed, Helen. I didn't even notice when I stumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed, this morning to take the picture.

Interesting, Desiree -- as I said before, there;s a lot of truth in fiction.

I know you know this, Brian -- you're a master at showing.

Star == I like a balance -- I like description of the setting, etc. But I Hate it the Big Scenes are just summarized by the author instead of 'acted out' by the characters.

So glad you're ejoying the book. A stand house was a kind of inn with big corrals (paddocks.) In the 1800's, during the yearly drives of cattle, hogs, etc to market, these stand houses provided a place for man and beast to spend the night and get food.

Thanks, Sam -- the red flower is a tree peony!


Vicki -- good advise for your class members. I imagine you discover some very good writers. -- barbara

Darla said...

This is a BIG one for me...show don't tell...so in a weird way, I feel good that so many of us newbies forget. I have lots of that to revise in my manuscript... (grimace)