Easier Said Than Written

I can show you better than I can tell you,” my mom said. She’s fond of saying this. It’s one of the sayings I associate with my mother the way I associate the sound of her voice or her signature facial expressions with her. This was usually a last warning before I was in big trouble. Showing was usually what could politely be termed spanking. Sometimes it was having things taken away. No matter what the punishment actually was, this was the time when explaining things was at an end and actions were required to get feelings and instructions across.

When this phrase popped into my head, I thought how apt it was for writing. Everyone has heard the phrase “show don’t tell.” Many of us have had it scrawled in the margins of manuscripts by our teachers or other workshop participants. Many of us have imparted this words like a benediction on struggling writers whose images aren’t concrete enough, or who can’t seem to convey the tension or mood without throwing adjectives and adverbs at us like hand grenades. But how do we do go about showing and not telling? Isn’t telling necessary sometimes?

I’ve taken a lot of English classes (I was an English Lit major, after all). One of the major emphasis that we had was on deciphering the theme, the motifs, the motivations of the characters, and the why’s and wherefore’s of the plot twists and turns. In Creative Writing Workshop, the emphasis was on the major dramatic question and it’s answer. We analyzed to within an inch of a work’s life. The best stories made it easy to infer these things; the worst spelled it out in crayon.

What I’m finding is that it’s easy for me to lay out in my head exactly what it is that I am trying to convey with Southern Gothic novel. I know that I want to focus on stories/histories–who gets to tell a story, authenticity of stories, ownership of stories/history, etc. I know I want to focus on an author finding her voice. I want to talk about the effect of the perception on the way we remember and relate. I want to show the intricacies on interconnected history that has been manipulated by all parties so long the truth might not be knowable. But I want to do all of that under the surface. I want to show all of that, rather than saying it.

But that’s easier say than written, right? I can explain what the story is about all day, but how to effectively convey things without telling?

If your writing workshops, books on craft, or friendly advice-giving neighborhood authors are anything like what I’ve encountered, they’ve told you about the importance of action verbs. They’ve told you get rid of adverbs and use as few adjectives as possible. Adverbs and adjectives are subjective. How happy is happy? What constitutes happy? Is she smiling happy or laughing happy? Is she skipping? But action verbs are more objective, as they represent–well, actions. Someone is doing something, and we can guess why:

 He trudged toward the infirmary. His shoulders hunched. Her lips trembled. The cold bit into his face. etc.

But what else can we, as writers, do to show versus tell? Is it ever necessary to tell? I’d love to hear your thoughts & suggestions.

For now, I’m keeping my mother’s words as my mantra this week: I CAN show you better than I can tell you.


2 thoughts on “Easier Said Than Written

  1. I’ve read this advice many times: show don’t tell. However, this rule can’t always be followed. If so, it would turn a 50,000-word novel into 70,000 words.

    Like everything, it should be used in moderation.

    When I show, I usually choose one or two senses and describe them, showing how the character feels: He closed his eyes and stared into the sun, savouring its warmth upon his cheeks. He sucked in air through his nose and was suddenly aware of fresh cut grass. Ah, summer.


    • You’re right; showing can get wordy if you aren’t careful. You don’t want to make it too sparse either. You want to keep the poetry or that sense of beauty without making it ineffective.

      I’ve never thought about how many senses I used when doing descriptions. I’ll have to read some of my works and see what I find. I like your rule of focusing in on one or two senses. I may have to try it out.

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