Monday, October 12, 2009

Show and Tell

Over at Absolute Write, member Dee Garretson had an idea: writers constantly talk about showing vs. telling, but what's the difference, exactly? Many of us get a little tell-y from time to time (there's a reason no one sees my first drafts.)  It's often difficult to understand the concept because, when done right, it's invisible. You feel the tension right along with the characters. 

So several of us took up the challenge to SHOW some examples of show vs. tell. Mine is from my own work. Same scene, two ways. Here's the setup:

It's 1976 in a pretty little suburb of Chicago. Housewife Ilona is trying to convince her kind-but-traditional husband to allow her to get a part time job. She's just taken her children to see the Sears Tower, now they are getting ready for dinner. 

“Where’s my beautiful wife?” Dennis said every evening when he arrived home at 5:30. Then a kiss. He was taller than most men, much taller than Ilona, and had a stoop to his shoulders. Like living an apology.  This evening, unlike most others, she had dinner waiting, the housework completed, and kids sitting clean at the table.

“Hi honey,” she said. “We are having steak tonight.”

“Terrific. I could smell it when I walked in. I love steak.”

Jamie and Ryan told their father about the Sears Tower, interrupting each other in excitement. Remember those trucks, they were saying, so tiny, and when we got down to the street they were still there, huge!

Ilona cleared her throat. “I made dessert tonight, too. Brownies,” she cut in, “and shirts. I bought some new shirts for you on our way home today.” She set the steaks on the table. The family sat down and passed the food clockwise. 

“Perfect. You’ve all been busy. Thanks.”

“So, honey, can we talk now? About that job?”

Dennis looked up from his plate, catching her eyes, but he did not respond.

“Can we?”

He sighed. “This again? Can I at least finish my meal first?”

They worked their way through dinner, talking only intermittently of the day’s events. The silences in between their remarks were punctuated by the chink of forks hitting porcelain. Her daughter, Jamie, finished quickly. She excused herself and turned to Ryan.

“Let’s go.”

“But I’m not finished yet,” he said. “And what about the brownies?”

“Come on.” She picked up the plate in front of him and walked toward the kitchen. “We’ll take some brownies into my room.”

Ryan shrugged and followed his sister into the kitchen, then down the hall to the bedrooms.

“Now?” Ilona asked her husband.


Ilona was nervous about asking Dennis about potentially working part time at the library. He took pride in providing for his family, and had tried to dissuade Ilona in the past from working. She'd been busy all day making conditions perfect before he arrived home, in an effort to show that her duties as a mother would not be forgotten. 

When dinner began, Ilona blurted out the question that had been inside her all afternoon. “So, honey, can we talk now? About that job?”

Dennis was exasperated. She just wouldn't drop it. 

The kids sensed the tension between their parents all through dinner and finished the meal rapidly. Jamie escaped with Ryan into her room and the parents continued their conversation.

Got it? Good. Now see how everyone else handled it. 

Melia (Dee Garretson)

Ink (Tracey Martin):

Blond (Gretchen McNeil):

Tas (K.A. Stewart):

Sunna (Amy Bai)

Red (Bryn Greenwood)

(Regular followers, I know I'm off schedule this week. I've been a little ARGH-MAKE-IT-STOP busy with life stuff. I'll be back on sched Friday. I'm sure you've been up late worrying.)


Jennifer Walkup said...

Great excerpt. Really good show/tell example.

Janna Leadbetter said...

So exciting to see your writing in action, Wendy! Love the excerpt. And you're right, sometimes the show vs. tell lines are a little fudgy. Thanks for giving a clear example, because it seems I struggle over this more than anything else with my writing.

sunna said...

Great example, Wendy! It's very clear. And I love your style. :)

Anonymous said...

In the show example, I feel like I'm in that room eavesdropping on the conversation. That's a good guidepost to go for.

Anonymous said...

That's a great excerpt. The rewrite makes your point very clearly.

ac said...

Okay, I struggle with show vs. tell. I have a question.

If after, "She'd been busy all day making conditions perfect before he arrived home, in an effort to show that her duties as a mother would not be forgotten," you included "she had dinner waiting, the housework completed, and kids sitting clean at the table." Would the inclusion of the last piece be telling?

I would have been tempted to explain exactly what she had done. Is it overkill because it doesn't really matter what she accomplished?

Melanie Hooyenga said...

This is great Wendy, and i agree with Janna that it's nice to see your writing in action. :)

I'm reading David Morrell's The Successful Novelist right now and he has some good tips as well.

(I was going to share but I can't find it, grr)

Gretchen said...

It looks so easy when you put it like that!!!! Argh. I wish I could see it as easily in my own writing as I do in all these example!

sue laybourn said...

Brilliant example, Wendy.

The difference between the two examples is a huge as Night and Day.

houndrat said...

Great way to highlight the difference, Wendy. And I want to know what he says about the job! :)

J.F. Posthumus said...

pretend I'm parroting what everyone else said, 'cause I have nothing to add!

Loved the example, too; especially the kids. who WOULDN'T want to stick around for brownies?!?!? ;)

WendyCinNYC said...

Thanks, everyone!

ac, IMO telling isn't always a bad thing, and can help with pacing. Yes, I'd write what she did there as well because I think it's important to be as precise as possible.

houndrat, he says no, which turns out to be a big problem.

Anonymous said...

Telling can especially help with pacing when you've got a fairly mundane scenario that need for the purposes of setup, but that perhaps doesn't contain a lot of tension or conflict. Rather than letting the setup play out and risk boring your reader, you can tell and then cut to the tension with show.

Allie said...

"like living an apology." That's just awesome.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

these were all so great!