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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Show - Don't Tell

Please welcome guest blogger Flo Fitzpatrick

You may have heard it from judges or from critique partners; agents or editors, even readers and your mom. "Show! Don't tell" Maybe you're a bit confused. You haven’t been using reams of paper to describe rooms, or forests, or the heroine’s jade necklace or even the dimples in the hero’s chin. So – what is this “tell?” thing and why is everyone so upset?

Most often, the term “telling” refers to describing emotions, thoughts, moods - or even characters – through use of “inactive” words. Words such as "know, think, thought, feel.” “Telling” sounds simple, right? And easy to avoid. It’s not.

Sometimes we 'tell' because we believe there's not enough 'action' to deliver that show in a sentence or two. Here are two examples of switching a tell to a show in places that might
not normally be considered active.

Tell: Ben thought to himself, “I feel so hopeless. I’m sure I’m going to fail this test.”
Show: Ben crumpled the score sheet into a tight ball, then pitched it across the room into the trash. He slammed his fist on the desk and shouted, “This test is impossible!”

Tell: A debate was taking place inside Tanya’s head. She kept trying to decide whether or not to continue dating Jarod. After all, he dressed well and she liked that. On the other hand, she knew he wasn’t athletic and she was keen on water skiing and hockey.
Show: Tanya’s pen hovered over item number four on her Pro/Con Jarod list. She scratched out “hot dresser” with some regret, then wrote, “Lazy. Forget water skiing this summer or hockey next winter. Where's Bachelor Number Two?”

One of the best lessons I learned from Acting 101 (Yes - there really is such a monster and I took it as an undergrad) was that emotion normally couldn’t be conveyed through just a facial expression or by words alone. Action – that was ticket. My professor even printed out a list of verbs for us (I would now kill to find that list – I think it went the way of the bad photos from sophomore year.) My teacher explained that playing a piece of “business” was a better way to show the audience a character was angry or sad or happy or in love. “Business” by the way, is a nice theatrical term meaning actions performed by a character.

Let me clarify. Take a character (we’ll call her Jane) and place her onstage. Jane has just learned that her husband of 20 years has left her for the clerk at the pawn shop.

Okay. Jane can grab her best friend, Jill, and say, “I’m so miserable. Joe left me and I feel
like I could just die.” As an audience member, you’re going to yawn. As a reader seeing that on a page, you’re probably going to yawn, slap the book on a table and see what’s on the re-run of
"CSI Anywhere."

But - if Jane picks up a vase, throws it against the original painting of Joe that hangs over a mantel, screams, “I’ll kill the stinkin’ s.o.b!” then begins to load the gun her husband bought from the clerk
at the pawn shop – well – the audience will be riveted. If these are words on written on a page in a book, you’re going to quickly keep reading now that Jane’s very real pain has been conveyed through action.

Plus pain accompanied by a breaking vase is much more fun!"

It's Showtime! Show, Don't Tell, presented by Flo Fitzpatrick, runs from September 5, 2011 through October 2, 2011

Flo Fitzpatrick is a multi-published author of romantic suspense, paranormal romance and mystery, plus numerous short stories and non-fiction articles. Her 2005 release, "Sweet Dreams" is now available as a reprint through World Wide Mystery. Kensington release, "Hot Stuff", was nominated by RTBookReviews for Best Romantic Suspense and is under option for film. Flo worked for a Literary/Talent Agency in New York as a "first reader" and has judged contests for various RWA and Sisters in Crime chapters, as well as the RITAS. With two other authors, she helped found Athena Critique Services in 2007 and has given workshops and evaluated manuscripts through Athena since that time. Flo's background is in Theatre and Dance - which may account for her love of "showing!"

1 comment:

Melania Tolan said...

Thank you so much for this insightful post. Your on-stage analogy gives me wonderful perspective of what it means to "show," something I struggle with in my writing.