Sunday, April 22, 2012

You Should Always Show - Not Tell !

Great advice and writing tip from High School Teacher and Indie Author David Berger:

You should always show, not tell!

But, Mr. Berger, why can’t I just tell the reader, ‘John is angry’ if he is? How will the reader know otherwise?

Students in my high school writing guild ask me this every year, in one form or another, and I always reply with, “You should always show, not tell, the reader what you want him or her to see.” Writing a story, I tell them, has more to do with creative, colorful mental images in the readers’ mind, not satisfying our own need to make sure readers know everything we want them to see. This is not about being in control—it’s about relinquishing control. Yes, that’s exactly what I said. Writers are not in control of their work, the reader is.

Describing behavior in conjunction with the setting opens the door for the reader to make the connections between the two, generating stronger emotions and attitudes. Just because the writer pictures a situation one way doesn’t mean the reader would, and readers tend to make connections with the text in ways they already know: that’s where the reader/writer bond comes from. We write as they think or completely opposite from it, so they connect.

I don’t know about other people, but I people-watch. I sit at Starbucks or the cafĂ© at Barnes & Noble and observe people, although not in that creepy “I want to follow you home” sort of way, I promise. Seeing people act or speak tells me more about what they feel, and the key—I’ve found—is just to write that. Going back to my student’s question, if I wanted to express John’s anger, saying that ‘John is angry’ deprives my reader of what anger looks like. Not everyone acts the same way. Some people are violent, others pensive. Some are sarcastic; others become obsessive. Here’s how I might do this:

“After pulling into the garage, John turned the car off and just sat for a moment, his hands holding the steering wheel but his arms limp, as if he didn’t want to separate from the car to accept the reality of the phone call he’d just had with his wife. A few deep breaths later, he went into the house, headed directly for the kitchen, pouring himself a shot of Jameson. Then, another. His eyes bounced around the living room, catching on the picture of his wedding on the fireplace mantle. As he held the frame, his finger traced the expression of his wife Janice’s face, a gentle smile surfacing on his. Remembering the phone call, he kissed the glass, and then flung the picture into the fireplace. Lighting the fire, he watched the wooden frame singe and then char, the glass popping from the heat. Every other picture of Janice met the same fate, as did that black dress she had worn when he proposed and the Red Sox t-shirt she had adopted from his closet.”

The reader knows how John feels without one emotional adjective. While writers can capture emotion in many ways, showing how characters behave lets readers picture the car, the house, and the roaring fireplace in the scene above in the context of their own thoughts. No one even has to know what Janice said to him, but one could surmise as much.

Perception lies in the mind of the beholder—that’s why readers keep going back for more. The next time you’re at Starbucks, watch the customers. You get much more than a latte.

- David Berger - 

David Berger on Indie Author News
David Berger is High School AP and IB English teacher. College professor. Hibernophile. Avid reader of fantasy fiction and comic books, especially Wonder Woman. Writer. Poet. Traveler. Student of life. Lover of mythology, mostly Greek. Inspiree of the Muses. Boston born, grew up on Long Island, NY, and living the dream. Loves life, and hopes it loves him in return.

David Berger is a recently published independent author, although he has been writing for almost 30 years.

Find out more about David Berger and his Book - Fantasy Adventure Task Force: Gaea - Finding Balance in this Article on Indie Author News about the Book and Video Interview with David Berger >>> Link to the Article

Links to the Author 

Link to David Berger's Website (Task Force: Gaea)

Connect with David Berger on Twitter: @MrDBerger

Link to David Berger's Task Force: Gaea - Finding Balance


Melanie Conklin said...

Wow! What a great, concise post with an excellent example. Every writer should read this.

Anonymous said...

Sounds nice, but isn't really correct.

As with all the rules of writing (or any art) it isn't really a rule at all. It's just a guideline. It tells you what has worked a lot of the time for a lot of writers but that doesn't mean the opposite hasn't worked as well.

The only real rule for writing is do whatever you have to to tell the story you want to tell in the best way you can tell it. Sometimes, we need to get some information across quickly and the best way to do that is to tell.


Jack Durish said...

Obviously, some people get it and some don't. Well, some people are writers and some are lecturers. Me? I usually don't go to lectures and most often fall asleep when I find myself trapped at one. When an author "lectures" to me, I simply close the book and do something worthwhile.
Great post with a great example.

Mathias Cavanaugh said...

Completely agree with you Scott. Any time someone starts saying "Always do this" or "Never do that" most people smart enough to know that it's just bunk.

So many stories by many successful authors are published with telling from open to close. So obviously "You Should Always Show - Not Tell !" is a personal preference and not an actual rule.

David Berger said...

Melanie and Jack, thank you for your comments.

And, Scott and Mathias, thank you both for your feedback. I certainly agree with you that writers should do whatever works; and, yes, this is not a rule as much as a guide or preference. Writers do have to tell some things to their audience, so perhaps 'always' was a bit of a strong absolute. Coming from the classroom experience, though, I just find many new writers are so eager to make sure their readers "get it," that they tell too much, leaving very little for the reader to see on his or her own. I appreciate your candor.

Serafima Bogomolova said...

David, I do agree with what you said in the post. Here is my version of the showing without telling, I hope you don't mind I took liberty to change your version ;-) In my opinion, there is no need even for a referral to the phone call, because what we focus on is his emotions...

"Pulling into the garage, John turns the car off and sits there for a moment, his hands on the steering wheel. Once inside the house, he heads for the kitchen, and pours himself a shot of Jameson. His eyes bouncing around the living room catch on the picture of his wedding. The frame in his hands, his finger gently traces the expression of Janice’s face, smile surfacing on his. Then suddenly, he flings the picture into the fireplace. Consumed by flames the wooden frame singes, then chars, the glass popping from the heat. Every other picture of her meets the same fate, as does the black dress she had worn when he proposed.”

David Berger said...

Serafima, no worries! There's nothing set in stone about this, so I think your version works just as well. Thank you for taking the time respond.

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