Show, Don’t Tell

As a fledgling writer you are taught that you should ‘show, don’t tell’.  But why, you might ask? What is the harm in telling anyway?  For that matter, what do you mean by that phrase?

Let me give you an example of show first:

Michael crept across the darkened kitchen and stopped at the fridge, his hand resting on the door.  He glanced round before opening the door. The light from the fridge made his skin glow as he fished for his favourite snack, salami.  After giving it a sniff he devoured the cylinder of pork.  Closing the door, he licked his fingers and returned to bed.

And here is an example of tell:

Ever since he was a child, Michael had fostered a secret habit nighttime eating.  The first time was at the age of eleven he had woken during the night with hunger pangs.  Desperate to have something to eat, he snuck downstairs and gobbled a plate of cheese left on the side.  His mother, Maureen, wondered who had eaten their food until one night she caught him red-handed.  The scolding she gave out did not deter him however.  He knew what he was doing was bad for his health but he could not help himself as he stole across the kitchen and raided the fridge.  This time he went for the salami.

Here’s the problem, in the first example the story evolves before your eyes.  You get an impression that Michael is probably impulsive by nature.  You don’t know what the original cause was for this secretive eating, you are left to your own conclusions.

In the second example I have told you the reason.  In order to do that I had to pull away from the story to tell you.  The flow was been disrupted in order to give you this piece of character-building information.

The reason I bring this up now is because of the book I am reading ‘The Improbability of Love’ by Hannah Rothschild. Parts of the book are engaging however Hannah does have a habit of telling rather than showing.

In short bursts, I admit, it is useful to tell some back story.  When it stretches to two pages and the story to one paragraph, then I have a problem.  While I haven’t finished the novel I keep asking myself the same two questions ‘Do I need to know the motivation of every character in the story?  Do I need the life history of said characters too?’

Currently, the answer is no.

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