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October 10, 2011 / Angela Sylvia

Writing Problems: Being Direct

One thing I hear over and over (and over and over) again when I’m learning about writing, or reading a writing guide, is “show, don’t tell!” Don’t dictate what is going on in a character’s head, let the reader see it, understand it. It’s very good advice, over all. But sometimes, when something is drilled into your head, it can override all of your other instincts.

I’ve taken the “show don’t tell” rule to heart, but I found out at my last residency that I was taking it a bit too far. In one scene of my novel I wanted to get across that my main character saw this new boy and her beloved pet as being very alike, and it’s with that realization that she realizes she likes this new person. With “show don’t tell” ringing in my head, I tried to get this across without actually saying that this is what she thought. I used hand gestures, looks, everything I could think of. I thought I did pretty good. And then that scene was being critiqued, and I discovered that there was not a single person in my group that had understood what I’d been trying to say.

And so I discovered that as great as “showing” over “telling” is, if you’re like me and take it too far you can actually sacrifice clarity. So I went back and changed my wording, and this is what I got:

Cilla had a sudden thought, that Garwin and this boy were alike. It made her stomach twist a little bit, but it also made her smile.

Now I’m actually letting you know what Cilla is thinking. You don’t have to waste time deciphering what I was trying to get across, and you can move on with the story. And I think it saves time, without all that extra unnecessary language I used to dance around and avoid just saying what was in my character’s head.

“Show don’t tell” is still excellent advice, since it shows some faith in the reader to understand, and allows for the feeling of anger/happiness/fear/etc., rather than just the word. But sometimes it’s just better to be direct.

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6 Comments

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  1. taureanw / Oct 10 2011 10:23 am

    Great advice & VERY good example!

    • Angela Eastman / Oct 10 2011 10:25 am

      Thanks! You’ll notice that any time I give “writing advice” it’s really just me pointing out a moment when I failed and had to struggle to fix it.

  2. Tom Quinn (@SocioTom) / Oct 10 2011 11:45 pm

    That is excellent advice. You know, there are plenty of authors I read who are willing to just simply tell so they can move on with the story. It really is all about balance, methinks.

    • Angela Eastman / Oct 11 2011 8:40 am

      Right, you have to know the difference between “showing” and just bogging down the reader with too many words, and also between getting to the point and writing something bland and lifeless. It’s all trial and error.

  3. spider42 / Oct 11 2011 5:39 am

    Everything has a time and a place – I think on principles like these there is no absolute and my experience when writing and interacting with writers has simply been that each has to find their own balance between the elements and methods of story-telling.

    Cheers…

    • Angela Eastman / Oct 11 2011 8:41 am

      There are all kinds of “rules” to keep in mind, but i think it’s really just to make sure you don’t overdo something. Like the advice to avoid the passive tense – some of my favorite writers use passive tense ALL THE TIME, but they only use it when it’s necessary.

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