Show don’t Tell


I’m still getting used to the life of a self-published author, particularly in this age of Amazon and customer reviews. Authors are advised that books need to have reviews, the more reviews the better, even those which are not entirely positive. 

In order to obtain those reviews, I’ve been involved in various ‘review exchanges.’ I read one writer’s book and post a review, and s/he does the same with one of mine. Better yet are the non-reciprocal reviews set up by groups on Goodreads, in which people sign up for a review round and the moderator ensures that you are not reviewing the work of someone who is reading your book. This is to ensure complete honesty.

So I’ve been reading a lot of self-published work. Some of the books have been real finds, and I’ve enjoyed them. Others... Sadly I’ve had to leave some less than complimentary reviews, for various reasons.

One of the greatest failings of these books, which have not been screened by any professional publishing process, is the emphasis on telling the reader. In great detail. The advice to writers is always, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ But many writers seem to ignore this. There are long paragraphs telling us exactly how the character is feeling, rather than finding some way to show us these emotions by means of what the characters does and says.

There are several levels to telling versus showing. For example, one could write, ‘Sarah glared at John, annoyed at his interruptions.’ There may be no need to state that she’s annoyed, if the dialogue earlier showed his multiple interruptions, and ‘glared’ already indicates this. Better yet might be indication her feelings by dialogue. ‘Sarah glared at John. “Maybe you could let me finish a sentence once in awhile?”’ 

Perhaps writers fear to trust that the reader can fill in the gaps. If a piece of dialogue ends in an exclamation mark, I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘he shouted’, never mind, ‘he shouted angrily.’ If we have the line of dialogue, ‘Look out!’ I don’t think there’s any need to add, ‘she shouted in warning.’ Again, surely that’s obvious?

It’s made me more aware of showing versus telling in my own writing. In my most recent novel, ‘Penny White and the Temptation of Dragons’ (to be released in April), I was very conscious of trying to show rather than tell emotion. For example, Morey, the small gryphon who has come into Penny’s life, is proving to be very annoying. In a scene in Morey’s room, I originally wrote this:


       We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

       ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

        ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

        His snobbery was beginning to eat away at my patience. ‘They’re easier to lift than your books.’

       ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

        ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

        ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ He cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’


I worked with this scene because I felt there was no need to tell the reader that Morey was being a snob. The conversation made this very clear, I felt. Nor did I want to tell the reader that this was annoying Penny, at least not directly. So after some work, this is how the exchange now appears in the book:


        We were in the room he had decided to adopt as his own. The guest bedroom, of course, the second largest in the house. He was striding along one of the many bookshelves. ‘I read a lot,’ he said, tail whipping past the leather-bound volumes. ‘I left most back home.’ 

         ‘Even what you’ve brought is more than I own.’

         ‘Only because you fill your shelves with science fiction DVDs.’ 

         ‘They’re easier to lift than your books,’ I pointed out.

         ‘Have you read Summa Theologica? Simply magnificent.’

         ‘Don’t tell me. You have the whole set.’

         ‘Back home. I had expected any well read priest to have the Summa in her own library.’ 

          I was tempted to find out how many volumes of the Summa it took to squash a small gryphon. ‘I can always look it up on-line.’

          Morey cocked his head. ‘You didn't offer me any wine.’


I like this so much better. Not only have I shown Penny’s annoyance, there’s a reference back to the books in question. And she gets in a retort of her own.

But that doesn’t mean I always get it right.  In ‘The Dragon Throne,’ I tried to give early clues that the setting wasn’t on Earth. There are references to two moons, for example. Above all, the length of the year is different than on Earth. So although the main female character, Fianna, is referred to as being eleven years old at the start of the book, in Earth terms she is actually nearly fourteen. As I tried to indicate in what Fianna’s father says to her outside her mother’s rooms.

 

       ‘Take one last look.’ Her father’s soft voice startled Fianna. She glanced at him, but Stannard was studying the room. ‘Fourteen months have passed since I placed my seal on wet plaster outside this door. But the seasons turn on, and the year is soon over. This is the last time we will see this place as she left it. Tomorrow, all must change. Will you want these rooms?’


From the summaries given by some reviewers, however, I think I might have been too subtle. People seem to take it for granted that she’s the age stated as in Earth terms, not taking into account that a year on this other world is actually fourteen months long. *sigh* Maybe I needed to find a way to tell that more directly. 

There are times when sensitively handled telling is required. I remember my confusion the first time I read Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ I was a fifteen year old living in California. I had no idea what a ‘zebra crossing’ was or why the name ‘Ford Prefect’ would be a good disguise (there was never a Ford model by that name in the USA). So after a beta reader for ‘The Temptation of Dragons’ asked what a ‘chemist’ was, I went through the book and tried to ensure that there was explanation for English cultural references. For ‘chemist,’ all I needed to add was, ‘to pick up some medicine’ to make that clear. Simple.

I’m continuing my review exchanges, and I’ve decided to smile at the worst instances of telling rather than showing. To date, my ‘winner’ in the telling stakes is probably this line, from a book and writer I shall not identify:

‘The stars were out in the dark sky. He so enjoyed taking his nocturnal strolls every night.’

Well, quite. Wouldn’t work during the daytime, would it?