Show vs Tell: a writing experiment

“Show, don’t tell” is a piece of advice often given to creative writers. It’s the difference between:

“The novice writer sighed gloomily, as she picked up her red pen, and prepared to cull adverbs”

and:

“No, crap, it’s all crap!” she hissed, hurling another piece of crumpled paper towards the bin.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever really got the hang of showing vs telling. I get the idea that by describing the scene and the actions, you give the reader a more vivid picture of what’s going on. But surely you need a bit of insight into what the character’s actually thinking or feeling?

Nicola over at Sometimes Stellar Storyteller has written a really useful article on this subject, (which has made me look despairingly at quite a lot of my work….but that’s good, really) and set us a challenge to “show, not tell” the action in the following scene:

Joe heard Beth had returned to town. It had been six years since she left him humiliated at the altar and eloped with his best man in a sad movie cliche. He had just left the supermarket when he saw her walking towards him. He felt his old rage resurface together with his treacherous longing. He was relieved she hadn’t spotted him and he ducked into the bakery until she passed.

At first I couldn’t think how to show rather than tell this scene. How can the way a man ducks into a bakers shop while a woman walks past possibly convey all the history of their failed relationship? Surely a bit of telling is unavoidable? So my first attempt looks at this scene from Joe’s point of view:

He’d heard she was back. Knew he was bound to bump into her again, town of this size. Rehearsed their inevitable meeting in his head – the killer lines, the withering looks that were going to leave her weeping with regret over the mistake she’d made. Of course, real life turned out to be even more of a bitch than Beth, throwing them across each other’s path on a day when he’d been clearing out the shed and hadn’t had a shower. He’d just dashed out for a six-pack for the neighbourhood barbecue. Sweating as he shifted the beer from right to left hand, rummaging underneath the torn hem of his filthy sweater to reach the car keys in his jeans pocket. Real stylish. And there she was, her blonde hair bouncing as she walked along the street, her eyes unseeing as she talked into the metallic pink iPhone in her red tipped fingers. Head down, he lurched into the bakery. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her float past the window, unaware of his existence. He blew out a deep sigh, ignoring the stares from behind the counter, and headed off in the opposite direction, the six-pack cradled in his arms.

I’m pleased that I’ve managed to cut down on my usual generous helping of adverbs (she remarked contentedly) but I still thought I could do better. So I had another try. This time I made a conscious effort to climb out of Joe’s head, and focus more on the physical sensations:

After a long hot day clearing out the garage, Joe had remembered his promise to bring beer and snacks to the neighbourhood BBQ. He’d jumped in the car for a quick trip to the supermarket, still in his dust-streaked work clothes. He was walking back to the car, rooting in his jeans pocket for his keys, squinting at the afternoon sunlight bouncing off the parked cars, when he saw her walking towards him. He felt his facial muscles, screwed up against the sun a second earlier, sag into open-mouthed shock. The sweat on his face and back turned to ice water, his heart pounding against the sharp corners of the six pack he was clutching against his chest. Head down, he lurched into the nearby bakery. A half-glance through the shop window gave him a fleeting image of her walking past. A bounce of blonde hair, red tipped fingers holding a metallic pink iPhone to her ear. The sound of her laughter. As she disappeared into the distance, he blew out a deep sigh, ignoring the stares from behind the counter, and headed off in the opposite direction, the six-pack cradled in his arms.

What do you think? Which do you prefer, or think gives a better impression of Joe’s state of mind? Both versions have aspects that I like, and aspects that I’m not happy with, so all feedback is gratefully received!

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, why not head over to Nicola’s blog and give this post a read?

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11 thoughts on “Show vs Tell: a writing experiment

    • Yeah, I’m starting to think that too. Maybe I tried to write his ‘inner voice’ a bit too much in the first one, but the second version actually leaves room for you to imagine how you’d feel? Thanks for the feedback anyway!

    • Thanks for the feedback! I’m starting to think the same. The funny thing is though, I couldn’t have written the second version, with all those external details, if I hadn’t imagined his inner voice first. Strange how the imagination works sometimes!

  1. I think the second one. As a reader I prefer a bit of distance from characters, although as a writer it’s essential to be in their heads! I’m also a bit sceptical of the show don’t tell rule or any rules in writing. It’s about the balance I think. Too much showing and the story gets waffly and a bit of telling is needed to move it on. Too much telling and it can feel flat, particularly in scenes which are meant to be milked for all they’re worth. I also don’t like the suggestion there’s any words which shouldn’t be used at least sparingly. I know my first drafts are usually full of he said kindly, she said loudly etc and most get taken out, but leaving the odd one in can make the dialogue more powerful in my opinion. If a word is in the language it’s there to be used – even the dreaded ‘that’ which I’m trying to cull from my writing at the moment!

  2. I can’t help but read this in the Mike Hammer mode! Have a quick google and you’ll see what I mean.

    I have no great issue with showing rather than telling and think there is a place for either, or both. There are no rules for anything that HAVE to be obeyed – well, maybe a few!

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