Friday, January 16, 2009

Who’s Afraid of Show, Don’t Tell?

Over the years, I’ve pondered Show, Don’t Tell, wrestled with this, and lost sleep over it. I’ve read many articles and labor over my writing to not tell as much. I still get from my feedback partners, “You’re telling, now show us.”

I even had one expert write, “This is too much telling for my taste.”

Finally, a light bulb clicked in my brain about Show, Don’t Tell. And it all came about because of a dump run.

Our trash had piled up, and then a stray dog broke into a bag and scattered trash. I did my routine of piling the bags in the pickup, and then I filled a fresh bag with the trash on the ground.

Then it was time to go to the dump, and would now normally holler to my husband. Bye. Be right back. This time, he was on his tractor on the far edge of the property. And I was in a hurry.

I didn’t “Tell.”

A little about me as a writer, I write good dialogue. I hear this from folks who read my work. Why is that? Why do I have a problem with Show, Don’t Tell, and yet I write satisfying dialogue?

Now a little about me growing up, I was raised the eldest of eight children with a busy mother who eventually became ill. Guess who took over the job of mother? Me. And I was good at it. I bossed my siblings every day of their lives until I left home and got married.

Then, when I had children, I not only bossed them, I “Told” them what we were going to do, as I did it. I wanted them to not be clueless, hoping they would feel secure with their mother and their narrow world around them.

Back to my object lesson: I didn’t “Tell” my husband I was going to the dump. As I was driving on the curves leading to the waste site, I imagined the clues I left for him and what conclusion he would draw.

1. Absent truck.
2. No garbage on the ground.
3. Clean trash can.

Bingo! It dawned on me that I showed him I was gone and where I went by the clues I left. It is Show, Don’t Tell at its finest.

This just proves true about that other lesson writers are always hearing from the experts: live a lot of life, learn from it, and apply it to our writing.

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