How to Go from Tell to Show

The show, don’t tell dictum espoused by every writing coach you will ever meet sounds simple in theory but more difficult to apply in practice. You are supposed to put into action the comments the author makes about a character’s qualities. Yet it seems that if you were to put on display every observation you make about the different characters, the novel could be 1,000 pages long.

The key is artful positioning. You construct scenes in such a way that the qualities you want to emphasize are built into the activity being covered. Let’s take an example: “He was blessed with many of his father’s qualities, but in one respect he was different. He was far more driven.”

First, isolate the qualities: similarity and more driven. How do you show a father and son are alike? You show them engaged in an activity together. The son might admire his father’s natural talent with multiplying numbers in his head, and he comments on it. The father replies, “Oh, I’m quick, but don’t forget all the numbers you handle every day.” A natural exchange that takes a few sentences. To add the second quality, the son might wonder idly why, given how brilliant he is, his father was content to remain a backroom actuary. The son is a stockbroker at a hard-charging Wall Street firm. You have taken comments and made them into facts.

Such examples could be spooled out in countless directions. That’s because a quality a person possesses is usually a common human trait. So you can apply a specific use for it and place it in a context in which it is realized.

Let’s try another one: “Her husband’s workaholism was an oppressive burden. To compensate she was always redecorating or volunteering for another committee.” How do you put this in action? Workaholism implies absence, either coming home late at night or arriving late at a social function. So that determines the timing of the scene. I would vote for the function as the setting, because if it is a charity event she is hosting, she’d be on edge anyway, and she’d be likely to castigate him—“You always have some meeting that runs late!” Now that dry telling has become an interesting show. What’s the work-weary husband going to say to that?

Exercise: Review the manuscript for comments on a character’s qualities. When you find one that can’t be put into action—say, a comment on how a flighty sister has, over the years, disappointed her old sister—place it within a conversation they’re having. The sister talks about the latest flighty thing she’s done, and the older sister has that comment as a thought before she responds.

“It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
—J. K. Rowling

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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