Show and Tell

by Michelle Gagnonpot stove

Last week Joe had a great post about figuring out where your story actually begins. I’m in a group that posts online excerpts, mainly of first chapters, and today I thought I’d discuss something that seems to crop up again and again in those posts.

The old nugget, “Show, don’t tell” relates to exposition; ideally, you want to limit spoon-feeding your reader, watching out for adverbs that drive home what a character is thinking and feeling. But what should also be taken into account is that you don’t need to “show” your reader everything either.

Here’s an example:

“I went into the kitchen and grabbed a pan. I put water into the pan and placed it on the stove. Then I added the seasoning to the water. After the water boiled I placed the noodles into the water.”

Now, I think what the writer was attempting to do was build suspense; the problem with this passage is that unless you’re writing a cookbook entry on how to prepare pasta, this is way too much information. By the time I got to the third sentence, my eyes glazed over. It’s a common error. Where it tends to crop up most frequently, I’ve found, is with entering and leaving a room: “I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped inside,” rather than just, “I went inside,” for example.

There are other ways to build suspense with a passage like this. For example, “She put water on the stove to boil. The doorbell rang. When she answered it, she found the UPS man standing there with a package. Could this be what she was waiting for?”

So…the water is still on the stove, set to boil. The heroine has apparently forgotten about it- but the reader hasn’t. If you consider how you go about your day, many of your actions are automatic. You don’t think through every step of putting on a pair of pants, walking across a room, or turning on your car; neither should you walk a reader through those steps (unless it’s critical to illustrate a character struggling to accomplish those tasks).

I prefer to start a story by dropping the reader into the middle of an action or conversation, forcing them to do a little work to catch up. After all, when it comes to eavesdropping (not that I ever do that, of course), the point when your ears perk up is not at the initial hello, but when something really juicy comes out. That’s what you want to begin with. Assume that the reader will figure out the parts you’re not telling them outright- engaging with a book should require a little effort, after all. You want them to wonder what the character is thinking, and what they’re going to do next. I want to know what’s going to happen with that boiling water- but assume that the rest of it, whatever isn’t critical, is a given and not something I need to know. For that, I’ll buy a cookbook.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

9 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. Great peice, that’s why I enjoyed THE BONEYARD so much [as well] as you allow the reader to use his/her Brain –



  2. Nice augment to the start-at-the-end theory, Michelle. You’re definitely confirming the technique of beginning “in medias res”.

  3. Great post and great blog. I am learning a lot from you all. What group are you talking about that puts first chapters online? Also, I wonder why I only read one in a hundred books from the beginning till the end. What goes on in the mind of publishers when they publish boring stories. So much money and paper gets wasted.

  4. I always advise newbies “Act first, explain later.” The readers will wait for explanations if they are caught up with a character in motion for some obviously important reason. And you’re so right. We don’t need to “see” every minor detail of a moment.

  5. First time I heard of Show Don’t Tell, I thought of comic books.

    I guess in a sense we do want it to be like a comic book in the readers mind. Lots of pictures, minimal words. They see the story almost like a movie.

    Visual learners of the world, UNITE!

  6. Aw, thanks for the kind words, Ali.
    The excerpt group is part of Good Reads, here’s a link to it:
    Comic books is a great analogy, Basil- the trick is describing without overdoing it. I know that for me, setting description is my weakness- one of the things I really admire about Kellerman is that he always manages to find a new way to depict something like the sun setting over the ocean without being trite.

  7. I’m always on the lookout for this when revising as I often fallback on adverbs in the first draft and then I start to hone in on actions to illustrate the feelings (the mantra: show don’t tell! fixed in my mind). I also always try to start and end a chapter in mid-stream – and let the reader fill in the boring details.

  8. You made some great points in this post, Michelle. Over-explaining character actions is a prime example of what I call a “story killer.” As writers, we have to identify all the story killers in our writing and stomp them out. Otherwise, the reader might throw the book across the room.

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