Show don’t tell?

If you write, get advice about writing from a writer, read books on writing, read stuff written, or get judged by someone who has written, gotten advice from a writer about writing or read a book on writing, then you have probably heard about “Show, Don’t Tell.”

The problem I have with that advice/rule/religion is that when it’s regurgitated in most conversations, it’s more vague than that previous comma-splattered paragraph.

So this morning I decided to take what I’ve learned and supplement it with some research on the topic to make today’s blog entry.

The absolute simplest way I can grasp the concept is like this: Be specific. In fact, if the bearers of the purity flame of writing would just change “Show, don’t tell” to “Be specific” there would be a lot less confusion.

This isn’t an original concept. It’s hinted at in every writing article on the whole gosh dang interwebs. In fact, over at thewritepractice.com Joe Bunting wrote a great article on it. He distilled the art of show don’t tell right down to the bare bones. Be more specific. I learned a lot in that short article and realized that this was how I approached writing. It’s nice to find validation.

So to put this in practice, I have taken something from one of my rough drafts. 

They say photographs steal your soul.

Darryl Martin adjusted his tripod. He was especially proud of this one. He had taken many pictures with it; many souls passed before it.

It was a sensible superstition he thought, screwing a sleek Nikon to the foot. First it was mirrors believed to reflect the soul. Then cameras came along and created a permanent image.

Darryl picked up a small box with rows of colored glass, and chose one.

So okay. That has a bit of show and a bigger bit of tell. So to improve it, maybe I could focus on some specifics and add some dialogue. This is how it looked after.

“Some people say that photographs steal your soul,” Darryl Martin said adjusting the height of his Bogen tripod.

He was especially proud of this particular piece of equipment. He owned some of the finest cameras, lens, filters and lighting money could buy. His tripod, however, was where everything happened. Moments happen in front of a camera and, as cameras come and go, the tripod is there for them all. Many souls passed before Darryl’s Bogen.

“It’s one of the more sensible superstitions, if there is such a thing,” Darryl screwed a sleek Nikon to the foot. “Before the camera, mirrors were believed to reflect the soul. So it stands to reason that since cameras capture your reflection…, you see where I’m going with this.”

Darryl twisted a long lens onto the camera body. He picked up a small box with rows of colored glass filters and chose one. A faint rainbow shifted on its surface as he turned it back and forth in the light.

Okay. A little better. I was more specific, focused on the show a lot more and added dialogue that gives the scene the immediacy it lacked the first time around. It also got longer…  from 76 words to 165 words. I feel like I can do better.

“There’s and old superstition that a photograph steals your soul,” Darryl Martin said, adjusting the height of an old Bogen tripod. Shiny dings pocked the thick telescoping aluminum legs. Worn silver duct-tape held adjusting knobs in place and served as makeshift pads for the feet.

“I am especially proud of this particular piece of equipment,” he said. “I own some of the finest cameras, lens, filters and lighting money can buy. But this Bogen… that’s where everything happens.”

He checked the position of a tiny air bubble in small, round glass filled with yellow liquid mounted to on top of the tripod. He made minor adjustments to the height and camber of the legs, until bubble moved between two black lines. He smiled and locked his adjustments in place.

“Moments take place in front of the camera,” he said. “As cameras come and go, this tripod is around for all of them; it’s helped claim many souls.”

“It’s one of the more sensible superstitions, if such a concept exists,” Darryl said, screwing a sleek Nikon to the foot. “Before the camera, mirrors were believed to reflect a person’s soul. It stands to reason that since cameras capture your reflection…, well you see what I’m getting at.”

Darryl lifted a long lens and savored the weight of it in his hand, before twisting it onto the camera body. He picked up a small box with rows of colored glass filters, gently flicking each one with a light touch of his index finger. He chose one. A faint rainbow shifted on its surface as he turned it back and forth in the light…

So that was something of an improvement.  It’s still first draft quality, but I made some progress. It’s at 272 words now and it feels more immediate. I paid a lot more attention to showing and I’m happy with the results. On my edit pass, I would focus on wordiness, sticky sentences and adverbs; eliminating as needed.

Taking this information, I will take my short story and make it readable.

I hope this little example helps you as much as it helped me.

Go write something!!

 

3 thoughts on “Show don’t tell?

  1. This is a good example both of how to be more specific and how specificity lengthens your writing (usually for good, as in this case, but sometimes for ill). Thanks for sharing this!

    Like

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