Top ten editor rants - number 4

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Welcome to the 4th Editor rant where we discuss the concept of Show Versus Tell

Submitted: August 20, 2018

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Submitted: August 20, 2018



Show Versus Tell

Hello again I hope you are getting some value out of these articles. Today we'll be covering off against another basic problem that I see in the writing of new authors. You may have heard Show Versus Tell before, but has anyone ever explained and demonstrated it to you? 

In the last rant I touched on it. So, in case that flyover was too quick, we are going to cover it in more detail. Why? Because it is important. Nothing will make your writing stand out more if you can grasp this concept and apply it to your work.

In the last rant I discussed POV's and the issue I always see around confusing 3rd Close and 3rd Omni. The dreaded POV shift. Show versus Tell is a principle that applies across ALL POV types, but I feel is particularly important within 3rd close. Authors abuse the POV shift and tell at the same time in my experience.

So what is this show versus tell?

There's a quote attributed to Anton Chekov, "Don't tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Okay, so let's examine that.

The moon shone brightly. <- TELL

On the tenebrous cobblestone street, broken glass shone like diamonds. <- SHOW

What do you notice? Tell is fast, but slow is far more immersive. AND, Show encourages you to use far less adverbs. (Adverbs is another rant topic)

Why is this important?

As a general rule, the more important the scene, the more show you want to use.

Let's do another example:

Tell: The house stood tall and imposing, and Emma approached nervously and wearily.

Show: Emma approached the ancient manor, her feet aching at the sight of so many stairs. She craned her neck up and a stone gargoyle rewarded her effort with a wide lascivious grin, under an accusatory glare.
Stupid gargoyle.

In the second example, do you feel much closer to the character of Emma? Does some aspect of her personality shine through? Is it more fun to read? Is it more fun to write?

Some people will tell you to always use show. I've seen that advice before in critique groups. What do you think? Is there a time when you wouldn't use show?

One of the things I do as a dev content editor is look at the metrics of a scene or chapter. I do this primarily for reasons of flow and pacing. If every chapter in your novel is about 2000 words, and a chapter pops up that is 3000 words, that's a red flag. Worthy of investigation. Why is that chapter so long? Perhaps it is an action scene...with lots of show.

Ooh. Tell is fast remember? If you have a bit of tense action, have set that action up where the reader understands the stakes and done all the things you should, you want that scene to be fast and focused.

Use short sentences. The short nature means faster reading. The tension rises. Hearts beat faster. Blood spurts across the face. Deadpool laughs and says, "Oh there's the money shot." 

Or perhaps it is time for some good 'ol fashioned snarky dialogue, You don't want a ping pong he said she said, but, you don't want to slow down the exchange with lots of wordy show either.

So tell has its place, just know when to use it, and don't use it too much.



© Copyright 2018 Julian St Aubyn Green. All rights reserved.

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