Sunday, July 3, 2011

Showing Versus Telling: Playing Director to Your Actor-Characters

To write compelling words, I always stress that writers must SHOW, not tell. I didn't invent that phrase; my own writing teachers used to say that. But sometimes, students have trouble understanding how to create "showing" words from "telling" sentences. Here's one of my latest lessons:

To show, rather than tell, with your words, the trick is to envision yourself as a film director who needs to SHOW each scene in pictures, with a little help, sometimes, from a narrator's voice-over lines. Mostly, though, the scene will consist of dialogue, actions, and descriptions.

One of my favorite ways to illustrate the difference between showing and telling is to have students examine the opening of the third Harry Potter book. As wonderful a storyteller as J.K. Rowling is, no author is immune to overwriting, and no editor should allow superfluous words to slow down a vivid story; however, the first two paragraphs of The Prisoner of Azkaban somehow got overlooked by both author and editor--but not by me. I have typed them below. Notice how the first paragraph merely tells what the following paragraph then SHOWS. If I had edited this volume, I would have deleted the first paragraph and started with the second (with a minor adjustment--see below).

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

It was nearly midnight, and he was lying on his stomach in bed, the blankets drawn right over his head like a tent, a flashlight in one hand and a large leather-bound book (A History of Magic by Bathilda Bagshot) propped open against the pillow. Harry moved the tip of his eagle-feather quill down the page, frowning as he looked for something that would help him write his essay, "Witch Burning in the Fourteenth Century Was Completely Pointless--discuss."

If Rowling had merely changed the first "he" in the second paragraph to "Harry Potter," we would already know that the boy is studying magic, as part of a school, and that something is odd (writing with a quill, not a pen, and doing his homework at midnight, in secret--from whom?). This second paragraph hooks us with a scene, not a summary, as the first paragraph does. In fact, the first paragraph illustrates something I coach my students to avoid: The Info Dump. The vivid second paragraph thus renders the original first paragraph useless. What do you think: is the first paragraph really necessary, or as compelling as the immediate pull into a scene, which is offered by paragraph two?