Show, don’t tell is the absolute queen of critique comments. I get it all the time. So does every person, in every critique group I’ve ever been in. The abbreviation I write in the margin for this one is STSS.
Let’s start with this event
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia hated it when an ATM went bad.
The writer is saying to the reader, I, the author, tell you what Marcia felt when the ATM stopped working. She hated what had happened. That last sentence is a did this summary rather than a does this description. Settling for did this rather than does this
- truncates the reader’s enjoyment
- places the author between the reader and the words
- opens up what’s happening to misinterpretation — Why exactly did Marcia hate that the machine was temporarily out of service?
Here are three other examples, all involving that blasted ATM machine
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia’s stomach went from tight to rigid. The closed glass door behind her wasn’t thick enough to deaden the sound of Donald’s car motor idling. He was out there, waiting, and when she returned without any money, he would punch a few numbers on his cell phone, and her sister would die. The machine spit the card back at her. Marcia wrapped her hand around it, leaving one corner exposed between her fingers. Let’s see what damage a bank card could do to eyes.
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia pounded on the machine, screaming obscenities at it. The louder she yelled, the larger the after-theatre crowd that gathered around her.
“This is my last chance with Donald, and no ass-hole machine is going to screw that up.”
She turned and grabbed a man’s coat lapels. The fabric felt soft and expensive. “I have to get to the airport. Lend me a hundred dollars,” she shouted into the man’s face.
Two police officers headed toward her. She unhanded the man’s coat and ran for the exit. Behind her, heavy duty boots pounded on the tile floor.
Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia stared at the machine. Blink. No money. Blink. No Donald. Blink. No mistake. This was what salvation looks like, a blinking green screen in the middle of a grey metal machine. Marcie leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cool metal.
“Are you all right, miss?”
She turned and smiled at the elderly man in the mall security uniform.
“I’m fine, thank you. My guardian angel just stopped me from doing something stupid.”
The first thing you probably noticed is that each of these showing examples was longer than the telling one. My rule of thumb is takes 3 to 4 times as many words to show as it did to tell. The original example was 22 words; the three final examples ranged from 92 to 116 words.
Second, the telling example gives the reader the writer’s conclusion. The showing examples view the world from inside Marcia’s head, even though all three are written in the third person. She’s desperate in the first example, a comic figure in the second, and relieved in the third, but I never came flat out and told the readers any of those emotions. I used Marcia’s own body language, dialog, and her interaction with people and things to convey what was happening in her life. The same techniques can be used in first person point of view as well.
Do we have to show instead of tell every single bit of our story? Not necessarily. Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward, to build segues can be delivered in a few words.
- Marcia paid the cashier and took her tray to a table at the cafeteria’s far end.
- The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Marcia ran for the phone in her office.
- Marcia studied her cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?
How do we recognize when telling, not showing is important?
- Is this an emotionally-charged moment for the character? (Marcia has finally gotten up the courage to ask her boss for the raise she desperately needs.)
- Has another character said or done something that, in real life would stop us cold? (Marcia’s finance, Donald, just told her that he’s wanted by the FBI.)
- Has the plot just taken a sudden, and likely unexpected turn? (The detective thinks that the killer had to have an unusually good knowledge of chemistry. Marcia knows that Donald has a masters’ degree in chemistry.)
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, it’s time to stop telling and start showing.
Here’s a quote, originally intended for actors, whichI paraphrased to writers
Writing is being driven by an urgent and immediate need to commit an action to achieve an objective that will fulfill that need. All external actions on the page need to be justified by the inner process of need that causes the action. … If we live in the world of the character and if we need what the character needs and if we do the things the character does to try to satisfy those needs, we naturally start to experience the life of the character and to modify our behavior and thought. This is known as the Magic If.
Our job is to do what the character does, completely and with the precise qualities required, not to show the reader the character or their feelings by indicating. Indicating is standing outside the reality of our character and playing the emotion or some quality of the character instead of immersing ourself in the experience of the action. ~ original quote from Robert Benedetti, The Actor in You
Next week, Tuesday, July 22, we continue with the third part of our common critique comment series. That one will be PSN (Perfectly Nice Syndrome) or how to tell when we’re making life far too easy for our characters.
On Thursday, July 24, Level Thinking is taking a look at how wide the mystery spectrum has grown in the past few years. I hope to see you here for both.