Frustrating, isn’t it?
You have finally sat down at the computer or your writing pad, fingers flexed and ready to write.
Then you stare at the page, trying to figure out what to say, knowing the pressure’s on. All of a sudden your high school English teacher appears on your shoulder wearing a red devil’s outfit, whispering the following in your ear:
“Write what you know.”
“Don’t use passive voice.”
“Never start a sentence with and or but.”
“Never let a sentence end with a preposition.
And the big daddy of them all:
“Show, don’t tell.”
All five commandments paralyze you – especially the last one – and your fingers freeze up.
How are you ever going to get it all down if you are burdened by the rules?
Okay, don’t panic. I covered the “Write what you know” myth here, here, and here. You’ve seen me use passive voice. I often start sentences with both and and but (not at the same time), and I’ve definitely let many a preposition dangle at the end of a sentence.
I am now about to debunk the myth of “[Show,] Don’t Tell.”
“Tell” is our friend
Last year I wrote a post on Show, to which I added a coda that sometimes you need Tell. Just think how long it would take to get out of bed in the morning otherwise:
The birds’ good morning song competing with the bubbling percolator assaulted Marilyn’s ears. The coffee’s sharp, robust odor forced her eyes open as if she had just snorted cocaine. Each vertebra cracked as Marilyn rolled herself to the edge of the bed, planted her feet on the cold floor, and willed her thighs to push her upright.
If Marilyn’s personal wake-up routine isn’t going to move the plot forward, why don’t we just let her turn off the alarm and get into the shower?
Marilyn slammed the alarm shut, groaned her way out of bed, and stumbled to the bathroom.
That’s a bit better, but maybe we just need to get her up and dressed:
Marilyn woke up, showered, and started getting dressed. That’s when she saw the black stain on her new red shirt.
In other words, if the important thing is the stain on Marilyn’s shirt, we just need to get her into the shirt for things to get going; we don’t need to know about how difficult it is to get herself out of bed.
Tell connects the dots
Tell is an important narrative device, and can do the following:
- Supply background information pertinent to the main idea or plot: “Glen was a tall black man living in the middle of Macon, Georgia.”
- Give backstory quickly and painlessly: “He was tortured by memories of his ex-wife and obsessed by thoughts of her new boyfriend.”
- Plant a key device or prop in our minds, to be used later: “She had a butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder.”
- Get a character from one place to the next: “Trudy ran through the freezing rain and into her car.”
- Transition from one key scene to the next: “Ten days later, the family found themselves back in the psychiatrist’s office.”
Telltale Tell signs
Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between Show and Tell – not that it matters a whole lot whether something’s a Show or a Tell. The idea is to create, as I called it in my earlier post about Show, an uneven balance between giving information (Tell) and allowing the reader to experience the action (Show), with Show getting the greater share.
Here are some ways to know when you and other authors are Telling. Keep in mind that not all of them will be employed in a Tell sentence or paragraph:
- There is ample use of “to be” verbs.
- Other verbs used are more passive: “have,” “feel,” “did,” “said,” etc., as opposed to more active verbs such as “possess,” “slam,” “holler,” “blare,” and “scratch.”
- There are more adjectives and adverbs to compensate for the lack of active verbs.
- The reader is on the outside looking in; he or she has very little or no emotional investment. In the above example of Trudy running through the freezing rain, we don’t really feel
the rain, as we would if the sentence said, “Trudy slipped and slid in her sandals, the icy rain pounding on the back of her neck and running down her bare, shaking legs.”
- Information is being relayed: “She stopped at the market before going home.”
- Most of the Telling is visual; the other four senses are used minimally.
Tell is about description, too
Most of us think that only Show is description, but look again at my Tell sentences. They certainly describe things, don’t they?
Which leads me to the following:
A writer has many description tools.
Tell is just one of them.
There is also Show, of course, and storytelling. One can also describe something using simile and metaphor, and there is plain narration that can describe a person or an event. All genres of literature, fiction and non-fiction, business writing and thesis writing, need description.
Image of butterfly tattoo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25785996@N06/3675523910.