Many of you writers out there have heard the critique, “Show, don’t tell?” Upon hearing this cryptic comment did you say to yourself What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Telling vs. Showing
|Photo: Declan McCullagh|
The cathedral was very big and beautiful on the inside. There was a lot of light.
Upon entering the grand space, my footsteps echoed on the smooth marble. Rays of colored sunlight criss-crossed the aisle that lay ahead of me, specks of dust glinting and twisting in the soft current. Compelled to raise my eyes to the view above, I was rewarded with a vision of perfect architecture. Ancient beams and arches met each other in precise symmetry, and hand-leaded mosaics of tinted glass told the stories of the saints. My breath caught in my throat.
Do you see the difference? In telling, your voice is more passive, and you’ll notice a lot of was-es. One of the very first things I learned from my mentor is to “get rid of those was-es.” It was hard! :) But now I notice that when I take out a was and replace it with more showing, it makes my story better. It’s also one of the first things I notice when I’m reading others’ work. You have no idea how prevalent the passive voice is in some of today’s best-selling novels. It can be depressing to read something that has been published, and is selling well, and realize that, while maybe you couldn’t have written it better, the writer could have benefitted from a tighter edit.
Anyway, I’m not here to preach, I’m here to teach. The next time you write a page, get your red pen, and circle all of your was-es. Make it a challenge to see how many you can get rid of−it’s not easy, but it will make your writing shine.
Here is my creative writing exercise from a “show, don’t tell” session. (Warning: explicit language.)
Peter shined his shoes, went to work and got fired.
“Aw, f*ck,” exhaled Peter as he realized he’d just spilt coffee on his newly polished Giorgio Armanis. His $1700.00 Giorgio Armanis. And it couldn’t be black coffee, no−that would be too easy. He’d just gotten it to the exact mixture of cream and sugar to make it taste perfect. He looked at his watch and took another quick sip of coffee, being careful not to spill it this time before he set it down. Checking his watch again, he hopped down the hall while slipping the Italian leather loafer from his heel and reached for an old towel in the closet. “God damn it,” he swore as he tried to soak the sugary coffee out of the impeccable hand stitching, “Now I’m gonna be late.”
And late he was. Hoping to avoid getting noticed as he exited the elevator, Peter tried to camouflage himself behind the heavy-set lady from accounting, the one with the big hair. But as he made the turn to head to his office of course he had to run into the firm’s senior partner, Jack Mayhoffer (he he), and of course, in the process of stopping short, spilled coffee on Mr. Mayhoffer’s silk tie. The tie that his late wife had given him on their last anniversary.
“Oh shit,” said Peter.
See the difference? Now, my showing paragraph is an un-edited 15 minute exercise. Though rife with swear words, and an inside joke, it does much more than say “Peter shined his shoes, went to work and got fired.”
Next time your writing seems to be lacking a little something, try showing what is happening around your characters, and how they react.
Don’t just tell your reader what happened, show them.