Welcome to Ravenna’s Monday Mumblings!!
With profound apologies to Alan Jay Lerner…
This is one of my all-time favorite musicals, and one of my favorite songs in it. I thought the lyrics and Audrey Hepburn’s passion while acting it in the movie version were appropriate for this post.
SHOW, DON’T TELL!!
We have that pounded into our writing brains from day one, but what the heck does it mean?
Simply put, it means do not TELL your readers how to feel, what to see, what to hear, what to taste, what to touch, or what to smell. SHOW THEM.
Now, obviously the entire manuscript cannot be full of SHOW or it would be 927,465 words long, and readers would become so bogged down in the language they’d stop reading at approximately 736 words. There are times when TELL is perfectly acceptable, and even preferred, to keep the story moving forward and avoid dragging the pace.
SHOW is for those times when you have your readers squarely in the POV character’s head, and you want to emphasize an emotion or a sense. This is especially true of emotions, because romances are character-driven books. We want our readers to fall in love with the heroes, right along with the heroines.
If you TELL her how to feel, you rob her of the experience of the emotion. It falls flat, and she doesn’t experience it along with the heroine. She merely reads it. And even worse, she may not believe it because she didn’t see it played out in the story. She may feel cheated out of the experience because you didn’t SHOW it happening between the characters.
How many times have you read a book where the hero and heroine fall in love almost instantly, but the author doesn’t show this to you in their interactions? She merely tells you they love each other, as if you’re supposed to simply accept it without any substance behind the words?
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass ~ Anton Chekhov
Probably the most famous quote used to explain SHOW versus TELL, and it says it all.
Here is an example:
“I’m so angry at you right now I can’t even think!” she shouted. She was angry with him. She might never speak to him again.
Okay. The exclamation mark makes the dialogue tag “she shouted” kind of silly, and then we go on to TELL the reader how angry she is. Repetitive and not necessary. The scene falls flat there. We might hear her shouting in our heads, but then it’s over. Emotion … gone.
Let’s try it again:
She turned to face him, hands balled into fists so hard her nails dug into her palms. Her breathing grew rapid. One last sentence, and then she might never speak to him again. “I’m so angry at you right now I can’t even think!”
See the difference? Or, I should ask, do you FEEL the difference? We know she’s pissed off before she shouts. We feel our own nails digging into our palms, and our own breathing quickens. There’s no need for a dialogue tag to slow down the pace or pull the reader out of the story with repetitiveness, or obviousness, because we know who is about to speak and why. There’s no need to TELL the reader how the heroine feels because we’ve SHOWN it with her actions, and her internal thoughts before she shouts at him.
Does it take a few more words to accomplish this? Yes. In this case, it takes 18 more. But at key moments in the manuscript, those few words can make the difference between a wasted emotional scene that falls flat and leaves the reader unsatisfied, and a highly-charged exchange that has her turning the pages to find out what happens next.
Let’s try one more example:
He picked up a seashell and handed it to her. “I can hear your voice in this.” She smiled, thinking how romantic that was.
Okay. That is a romantic thing to say, but the exchange is flat and boring. The author TELLS us it’s romantic, but she doesn’t SHOW us the romance.
We can do better:
He gave her a sheepish grin as he reached down and picked up a large seashell. They stared into each other’s eyes, with the sound of the waves crashing and seagulls crying plaintively overhead. She breathed in the salty smell of the water, never wanting to leave this place.
He put the shell to his ear, then his eyes went all soft. “I can hear your voice in this.”
Oh swoon! This man was getting anything he asked for tonight.
Ah! There we go! She hears the sounds of the water and the gulls, she breaths in the scent of the ocean, plus we have his sheepish grin and him putting the shell to his ear before he speaks. Then we’re treated to a bit more than romance. She wants to get it on with him because of the romance. There’s no need to tell the reader “this is romantic.” We see it, hear it, smell it, and feel it in their words and actions.
Go through your current WIP now and see if you can’t find a few instances where you have an opportunity to SHOW instead of TELL a key scene or exchange between the hero and heroine. It doesn’t even have to be between them. Any emotionally-charged scene that is pivotal to the story deserves the same care and consideration.
Oh, and if you’ve never seen MY FAIR LADY, give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.