Monday, January 17, 2011

Show, Don't Tell

When I first began this writer's journey, my friend Donna Hosie shared this delightful quote by Anton Chekhov:
Don't tell me the moon is shining;
show me the glint of light on broken glass.

 I find myself beating my head against the wall at times as I try to really get my hands around this concept. Even the way he phrases it seems poetic to me--and poetry doesn't come out of these lips (nor my fingertips on a keyboard).

When I first began A Change of Plans it was in third person. At that point in time I would never consider writing in first person because it would be too ... embarrassing as I mentioned here. Twelve thousands words into the story, and I knew I didn't have the voice right. The only alternative was go with first person, so I rewrote it, and it just flowed. I managed to get out 80,000+ (very rough--still rough) words in 30 days.

I've read tons about writing, since I began the process of editing this project (and began two others works), and in late December I joined a couple of critique groups at David Farland's Writers' Groups. All I can say is, "Wow." What I'm learning from my groups is what I'd hoped that creative writing class I took (and dropped) last September would teach me.

I submitted the first half of Chapter 1 and got back input from three other writers. I learned so much from that experience, and the main theme was 'show, don't tell.'

When I compared the first person, storytelling narrative of A Change of Plans I could never liken it to Chekhov's beautifully descriptive prose. For one thing, my main character doesn't go around talking like that. She's a regular person, who talks like a regular person.

But in the comments made (and explanations given) by my critiquers, I suddenly found myself "getting it" as far as what show, don't tell can mean--even in my first person, storytelling narrative. Maybe especially in my first person, storytelling narrative. It seems so obvious now that I feel a little stupid (that's an understatement to save my self esteem).

Nonetheless, I feel like I've made a huge breakthrough here.

Of course, it takes more words to show than it does to tell, and my manuscript at this moment is at 99,426 words. And I'm only on the second chapter replacing a lot of the telling with showing. Which means I'm going to have to do a lot of chopping in order to keep it under 100,000 words, since going above that, I understand, can be a reason for potential agents to not even consider it--if I decide to try querying.


Plus, I've been paying particular attention to the books I read, and there's a lot of telling going on. So how do you know when it's too much? There has to be some telling. We're storytellers, after all.


  1. This is a tough one. For me, when I've had enough distance from a piece, I can hear when the telling is going on too long or if the telling is taking me out of the scene. I really think being able to write is like being able to hear and play music.

    With other people's stuff, it's easier for me to hear what is and is not working. With my own stuff, sometimes just a day is enough for the obvious stuff, "Eewww, Becky that is just dreadful. Fix it right now." But often, the more subtle, nit picky stuff needs more time.

    I do think telling, in small doses to move though less significant but necessary information more quickly is always appropriate and every book has some of it. But with telling, there is no emotion happening for the reader. If there is something you want the reader to feel, show them how the character feels.

    Anyway, that's my two cents. Great post.

  2. I like that, Becky, about the no emotion happening. I'll have to add that to my list of things to consider. =D

  3. Show don't tell is a tough one and one I never worry about on the first draft side of things.

  4. Well, I'm on Edit #7, Travis, so I keep hoping that I'll get this figured out. That's some of the problem with 'on the job training.'

  5. I went through 15 major overhaul edits and 4 complete rewrites of my first book before I moved on. All I can tell you is, it's an extremely long process, but each step of the way your writing will improve. As long as you continue to take critques with grace and an open mind, every new realization will make you better. As you gain this experience, you'll learn when the telling is working and when it's not. But as a general rule. I try to always show everything I can on first draft, then alter what needs to be altered in revisions. Hang in there. :)

  6. Wow, Jenn. I hope I live long enough to see this book actually completed! =D

  7. LOL--Donna if you can write 80,000 words in 30 days, I think you can edit it in the time you have left! :)

    Though, really, editing is its own beast and not at all like writing the first draft. Except for the parts that are just rewriting--those are JUST like writing the first draft, dang it!

  8. So I've discovered, Robin. I think the process has been especially egregious because I'm learning as I go. I'm learning to understand why I've liked/disliked things in books I've read. It reminds me of when I was the church choir director. We got someone to play who played very well but had never been an accompanist before. She'd didn't know what we were talking about, when we'd ask her to play the alto line. It's that kind of difference.


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