Writing Tips: Showing vs. Telling-- it's all About Gravy
The biggest mistake I find in writing, especially in early drafts, is too much telling and not enough showing. This is an affliction that affects novice and professional writer’s alike. It’s understandable. That first draft is supposed to be an unedited flurry of ideas. Most of what you write in that first draft should probably be discarded and the first thing you should look for in your initial edit are instances where you are telling, rather than showing.
Why is it important to show rather than tell?
Telling the reader something takes the joy away from your reader in figuring out what is going on. It’s also not giving the reader credit for being able to understand what’s going on or make inferences from what is happening on the page. It can be insulting to your readers’ intelligence.
More than that, telling rather than showing, is lazy writing and is uninteresting reading.
Here’s an example of a sentence that is telling the reader what is happening, not showing them:
Bill was sad and reclusive. Since Martha left, he hadn’t left the house, he just sat laid in bed all day and said her name.
That’s not terribly exciting. We’re not allowed to see Bill, we’re just told how Bill is feeling. It’s good for the reader to know how Bill is feeling, but it’s better to show the reader how Bill is feeling. Do this by showing what Bill looks like and what he is doing. This makes for more interesting prose and builds a deeper connection between the reader and the protagonist.
The example in this piece is prose, but these tips apply to any kind of writing.
Simple. By showing :-)
Use dialogue (avoid clichés!)
Use setting (avoid clichés!)
Use characterization (avoid clichés!)
Use the basic writing skills you’ve learned. A good tip is to close your eyes and watch the scene unfold. Write down what you see. You can’t see feelings, you can only see actions, mannerisms, deeds, places, things. If you can’t see it, don’t write it down.
One way to know that you’re showing rather than telling is to ask yourself “Can I pour gravy on this?”
Write down what you see and give the reader enough credit for understanding what you’re trying to convey. If it can’t be covered in gravy, than it needs to be reworked.
Can you pour gravy on love? No. But you can pour gravy on your wife or husband. In fact, if it’s not scaldingly hot, that could be quite fun.
But I digress.
You can pour gravy on concrete.
Describing physical things and physical actions helps you avoid clichés and abstract language. Physical things can be smothered in gravy.
I’m repeating myself. For a reason.
As a writer, you have a pact with your reader. You’re going to write them a story, and they’re going to use their imagination and put themselves in the story.
*note, thanks to my professor, Elizabeth Knight for the gravy analogy!
Let’s look at Bill again. What's he doing? How is he feeling?
Bill tossed and turned. He ran his hand across his face, feeling the sharp prickles under his palm, enjoying the pain because it allowed him to feel something. He didn't notice the stench in the sheets. He didn't care about the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. The phone rang. The machine picked it up and Bill heard Peter's voice saying "Come on, man. It's been a while. Let's grab something to eat. You'll feel better." Bill covered his ears with the pillow and rolled over. He squinted against the sun creeping through the dusty blinds. He rolled the other direction and saw the picture of them together, just last month, at the falls. Martha stared off distantly, away from his smile. Bill grabbed the picture, screamed, and chucked the photo across the room, watching it shatter against the wall.
There you Go
That's a better draft, It shows everything that the previous sentence told. We now know how Bill is feeling by seeing how he looks and how he's acting. It's not perfect, but it's a start, and hopefully it helps you in your journey to show vs tell.