Writers Advice – Show Don’t Tell

The editorial calendar says this is the week I write my first advice column for young writers. I know what you’re thinking.  Jim, haven’t you been writing for like only 3 years?  Aren’t you something like 0 for 25 in short story submissions?  What makes you think you’re qualified to give writing advice? To which I reply – “I’ve actually been writing for over 30, I’m only 0 for 23 – but screw you for reminding me, and everyone knows those who can’t do, teach!”

Wait, I think about 30% of my fan base are teachers or former teachers…. That last line was meant to be ironic. I didn’t really mean that…Teachers ARE doers, they are the best doers I know…they can do me anytime…crap, this is devolving rapidly….how about I just get back to the whole writers advice thing?

Please don’t leave, teachers.  I need you!

Most of what I share will be basic advice that I’ve gleaned from various classes, workshops, and from almost 30 years of reading some really great writers. It will probably be most helpful for someone just starting down the writers path, but even if you’ve been writing for years, you might be able to find something that you hadn’t thought of.  And if you decide it’s not for you, I’ll be back to stories about how I failed to lose my virginity at band camp in no time.

One of the common questions I’ve heard in writer’s groups is “what the hell do you mean, ‘show don’t tell’, I’ll show you the rough side of my hand, you son of a bitch!”  (I hang out with some rough writers groups.)

Let’ see how well you show with my foot up your ass!

There’s a couple different ways to explain it, but it may be simplest just to show you an example.  Here’s a little something from Flannery O’Connor:

“Listen,” Baily said.  “We’re in big trouble!  These guys are going to kill us!”

Baily had blue eyes and was wearing a shirt with blue parrots on it. He stood very still because he was nervous.

After the Misfit told his men to take Bailey and his son out to the woods, the grandmother got so upset that she broke her hat.  Baily was having problems walking because his legs were shaking from fear, so Hiram grabbed him and pulled him up.  John Wesley was scared too, so he held his dad’s hand while they walked towards the woods.  When they got there, Bailey was even more frightened because he knew he was about to die, but he didn’t want his mom to worry, so he stopped and yelled to his mom that he’d be right back.

“Come back,” she said. His mother was still very worried and it made her voice sound shrill.

“Bailey Boy.” She yelled.  She looked at the Misfit.  She was desperate, so she said to him, “I know you’re a good man!”

OK, fooled you.  That wasn’t really by Flannery O’Connor.  Rather it’s my interpretation of what O’Connor would have written if she sucked as a writer.  As you can see, structurally this is fine.  No run on sentences, punctuation in the right place.  It gets you all the facts (old lady and son are scared of the bad guy, a bunch of people are about to die). There’s a good amount of description (blue eyes, parrot shirt). But it’s awful.  It doesn’t draw you in because I, the author, am standing between you and the page telling you that Bailey is nervous, telling you that his mother is scared.  Here we have this scene that should be incredibly tense, but I might as well be some gossipy housewife recounting the events of neighbors she hardly knows.

Let’s see how Flannery O’Connor handled this scene.

“Listen,” Bailey began, “we’re in a terrible predicament.  Nobody realizes what this is,” and his voice cracked.  His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still.

The grandmother reached up to adjust the hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand.  She stood staring at it and after a second she let if fall on the ground.  Hiram pulled Baily up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man.  John Wesley caught hold of his father’s hand and Bobby Lee followed. They went off towards the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned and supported himself against a grey naked pine trunk, he shouted, “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”

“Come back this instant!” his mother shrilled but they all disappeared into the woods. 

“Baily Boy!” the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was looking at the Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her.  “I just know you’re a good man,” she said desperately.*

Never once in this passage does O’Connor tell you that the characters are nervous and scared.  But she shows you. You hear the sounds of Baily’s nervousness in the crack of his voice, see his fear in the way he needs help walking  O’Connor pulls you into this gut-wrenching scene, makes you part of this terrifying little world.

“So how,” you ask, eyes all wide and innocent, “how do I write as well as Flannery O’Connor?”  Well first, give up that little fantasy, crazy youngster.  It’s impossible. There are few writers around today worthy of carrying Flannery O’Connor’s jock strap (you know…if she were a guy …and wore a jockstrap.)  With a little work, though, we might be able to settle nicely among the likes of a Dean Koontz, or a John Saul, or a……urk… Stephanie Meyer (I just threw up in my mouth a little).

Oh great, I literally just wrote this and there’s already a horde of angry women wearing ‘Team Stephanie’ t-shirts gathered outside my house.  Again, kidding…I kid because I love!

You bastard, Stephanie Meyer is a literary genius…I’m going to f@c#k!ng kill you.

OK, back on point.  How to show?…Let’s try this little exercise.  Go back up to my version of the scene and count how many times the word “was” appears…take your time, I’ll wait.

OK, I counted eight… which is lucky because any more I’d have to take off my shoes…

Now count how may Flannery uses….wait…don’t bother, I’ll tell you so you don’t have to go all the way back up there….

ONCE!  In the entire 191-word passage she uses the word “was” once, and that was for tense purposes. (OK, she uses the word “were” two other times, but whose counting?)  Instead of those passive verbs, she uses great, evocative action verbs: “reached” “stood” “caught” “disappeared.”  Words that actually mean something. Words that you can picture as you read. Words that grip you by the throat and choke-slam you right in the middle of the action.

So that’s really  a very simple first step.  Go through your manuscript and replace your passive verbs with action verbs.  You probably can’t get rid of them all, even Flannery used one (OK, three), but keep those numbers down and use them only when there is no other choice. You’ll immediately see an improvement in the way the story draws in your reader.

On a similar note, get rid of the “Sos” and “Thens” and “Becauses”  all of which are really the literary equivalent of saying “um” between words when you are speaking.  (Or as one instructor said years ago, they’re nothing but word diarrhea.) These filler words stand between you and your reader.  They break the flow of the story.  You become  once again that gossipy housewife saying “so Harry ran out the door and then Marcia followed him because Harry didn’t have any pants and it was all so hilarious.”   Finding these words numerous times in your story are  a clear and bright signal that you are in ‘tell’ mode.

Finally, you need sharp, concise description and imagery.  Vivid detail is absolutely key. You need to write in 1060pi Hi-Def…Make sure the readers see the colors, hear the sounds, smell the …um…smells. In the passage above, you see the grandmother staring at the hat brim in her hand for a second before letting it fall to the ground. O’Connor isn’t telling us that this woman is frantic and is on the verge of a breakdown, she’s showing us.  You can almost hear the old woman thinking “How the hell did this hat brim get in my hand?”   O’Connor doesn’t need to tell us Bailey is scared shitless, she shows him, barely able to walk, supporting himself against the “gray naked pine trunk,” which in itself is excellent imagery, this idea of a dead tree, laid bare and corpse-like (as Bailey soon will be).

And being descriptive doesn’t mean you need to get all Tolkien on your readers and describe the exact color, length, and braiding pattern of every Dwarfs beard. Even writers like Hemmingway, renowned for the sparsity of their writing, find ways to bring you in.  Read “Hills like White Elephants.”  The average sentence is about eight words long, and the story is 2/3 dialogue, but within a paragraph, you’re sitting in that bar, feeling the dust on your tongue and listening to the couple at the next table bicker.

Well, that’s all I got, peeps. I hope it helps a little. There are a number of books from people who know a lot more than me on this subject, some of which are from people who actually get paid to teach it.  The one that’s most touted at the Philly Writers Conference is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.”  Personally, I liked Stephen King’s “On Writing”, though the part where he said not to bother if you can’t dedicate 20 hours per day to the craft did put me out a bit.  I think he’s forgotten a vast majority of us still need our day jobs. If neither of these work for you, don’t despair.  Just go onto Amazon and type in “writing.”  You’ll get about 290,000 results, I’m sure you’ll find something out there that calls to you.

On a slightly different note, if you’ve never read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or anything else by Flannery O’Connor, you need to stop everything, find a collection of her work, and read it now.  She’s probably as close to writing perfection as you can get.   This story  is one of my favorites, mostly because it starts off funny, almost farcical, and just when you think it’s supposed to be some kind of family road-trip comedy, she turns around and sucker punches you in the solar plexus like that douchebag Danny Welsh used to do to me every day in third grade.

I’m sure he looks something like this now… and I’ll find him… someday

*Excerpt from “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” from A Good Man is Hard to Find and other Stories, copyright 1953 by Flannery O’Connor, renewed 1981 by Mrs. Regina O’Connor.  Printed here with really no one’s permission so if you’re from the O’Connor estate and you want me to take it down, I will.  Please don’t sue me, but feel free to raise a holy stink so I can get lots of press and drive people to this blog and maybe catch some agent’s eye who likes my spunk, kinda like Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore – and for the record, even though I look more like Lou Grant, I’m actually Mary Tyler Moore in this analogy…Peace out, yo.


3 Replies to “Writers Advice – Show Don’t Tell”

  1. Some fantastic points here, great for everyone whether they’re starting out or just need a reminder or two on what they should be doing!


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