Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Show. Don't Tell.

Anybody who writes has heard that one. Don't tell us your character is sad. Show us she's sad. Have the tears sting her eyes. Make her feel like there's a rock in her chest. Let her stomach twist in knots or have her lie in bed and refuse to get up.

I've been thinking about it a lot because the book I'm writing right now is in first person. It's pretty easy to get my heroine's feelings, thoughts, emotions, goals, motivations and everything else across because we are in her head all the time.

It's a little trickier with the other characters. They really have to show all that stuff because I'm never ever in their point of view.

I get a lot of inspiration from every day life and had a doozy of an example fall in my lap this weekend while I was on a bike ride with two friends. We'll call them Deb and Ellen because, well, those are their names.

I was a little ahead of Deb and Ellen as we turned from Putah Creek Road onto Stevenson's Bridge Road (you can totally google that, by the way). There was a car coming toward us, but we had plenty of time so I didn't worry about it.

Then I heard a blood-curdling scream from behind me. I whipped my bike around (I call her Bianca, by the way, because she's so pretty and special) half expecting to see that someone had wiped out in front of the car or that the car had swerved and hit one of them or some other horrid thing. Instead, there's a half-dead squirrel doing a horrible twitching flipping flopping death dance in the middle of the road.

Turns out, Ellen and Deb were riding along and the squirrel was just in front of them hopping along. Ellen had just something to Deb about how cute the squirrel was when the squirrel dashed out in front of the car and WHAM! got hit. (You can snort a little at that part. It's hard not to. It's like some sort of bad sit-com moment.)

So Ellen is almost falling off her bike and tears are rolling down her face. I'm trying to get her to not look at the squirrel's death dance and am hoping that another car comes along and finishes the poor thing off. Meanwhile, Deb hops off her bicycle and goes in search of "a big rock to put the poor thing out of it's misery." (You have to imagine that in a New Zealand accent, by the way, cuz Deb's a kiwi.)

So my point here? Besides the fact that squirrels really should learn to stop, look and listen before crossing the road?

Both women's reactions really showed me something. Both were equally compassionate. Both felt terrible for the little squirrel. Ellen (who is one of the sweetest, most empathetic people you'd ever want to meet) was devastated and could hardly move. Deb (who is one of the most capable and pragmatic people you'd ever want to meet) was prepared to do what had to be done.

Me? As usual, I was the observer. I'm not sure I want to think too much about what that says about me.


Unknown said...

Thanks. That was a really clear statement of how to show, not tell.

I've linked to this post from http://boudica-marginalia.blogspot.com/2009/12/dead-squirrels.html.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Oh! I love it - it doesn't get more clear than that!!!

Allison Brennan said...

I'm not surprised you're the observer. Writers tend to be more observant than others, even when they don't realize it.

Eileen said...

I think you're totally right, Allison. Occasionally I feel like I'm not really participating though. It's an odd sensation.

Maureen McGowan said...

Fabulous example, Eileen. It's showing reactions like that which separate the great writing from the merely competent.

I've written books in first person, too, and it's so tricky. Especially if you don't 100% want the protagonist to get what's going on, but you want the reader to suspect it, but you don't want the protagonist to seem stupid. You really have to clarify the POV character's perception of the incident...

Like in your example, most readers would know the grab a rock gal was just trying to be compassionate, but the POV character could be horrified.

Writing is hard. Not thinking about this hard stuff again until after my deadlines. Too hard. ;-)

Eileen said...

I remember the first time I started writing in 1st person. I felt like I was walking on a tightrope! There are some dangers, but it can be exhilarating, too.

Anonymous said...

In a recent class, I heard you should show and then tell. She had some fabulous examples, too. But I think the best example of showing is that scene in "An Affair to Remember" when the Cary Grant character starts to figure out what happened and he heads into the bedroom and when he sees her wheelchair - that look on his face is priceless - I still get chills thinking about. Great example of the power of showing. And then the Debra Kerr character started explaining so that could also be an example of show and then tell.

Anonymous said...

Great example, Eileen. I've never tried first person POV.. seems intimidating.

Corey said...


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