Consider the following passage:
John-Paul was a successful businessman. He was six foot tall and athletically built, with blue eyes and blond hair. His brother was called George. John-Paul was a rich man who drove a Jaguar and owned a large house in the suburbs. All his family holidays were taken abroad and they always flew first class. His parents were huge fans of the Beatles, which was how John-Paul got his name. He was named after John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Despite being rich and powerful, John-Paul was a kind hearted man…blah, blah, blah…
Snore – oh, do excuse me. I dropped off for a minute there.
If this passage were to be used as notes for the author’s own reference, fine. Even if this were a first draft, there’s plenty that the author can edit and refine at a later date – as long as they do edit and refine it. Sadly, though, I have encountered self-published books (clearly un-edited) which actually begin like this, bombarding the reader with far more information than they can take in at once. Whether or not the writing style improves I can’t say, as by page four I’ve usually given up.
Because it’s boring.
So how does an author get information across to their readers in a way they’ll enjoy and remember? Two ways: one, introduce the information bit by bit so the readers can gradually get to know the characters as they’d get to know someone they’d met in the “real” world. This is also true for places, background information – anything essential to the story.
Two, pretty much anything can be shown to the readers. They don’t need to be told when they can work it out for themselves.
John-Paul parked in his reserved parking space and locked his expensive car, then strode with natural athletic grace towards the door of the pristine Financial District skyscraper in which he worked.
What does the reader now know about John-Paul? Well, he’s rich (expensive car), successful (he has a reserved parking space in the Financial District) and he keeps himself fit (couch potatoes don’t tend to have athletic grace). However, not one of these facts has been stated in so many words.
On the way into work, John-Paul’s blue eyes alighted upon a homeless man, shivering as he sold copies of the Big Issue. Making a detour into the nearest Starbucks, John-Paul ordered a large coffee then crossed the road.
“Here you are, Joe,” he said, handing the steaming drink to the Big Issue seller. “Milk and two sugars, just as you like it.”
From this our readers can deduce the blue-eyed John-Paul is kind hearted, clearly on a regular basis (he’s friendly enough with Joe to know his name and how he takes his coffee), and they don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes in order to make the deduction.
Later that day:
Walking into the bar to meet his friends, John-Paul was transported back to his childhood as “Love Me Do” rang out from the jukebox. Growing up with two Beatles fanatics as parents, he and his brother George had passed every day of their formative years to a soundtrack of the Fab Four’s music.
(I didn’t have the heart to give John-Paul another brother called Ringo!)
John-Paul’s visit to the pub tells the readers enough about his childhood for them to work out for themselves how he got his name – and please don’t try to explain for the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with the Beatles. Can you imagine it?
John-Paul was called John-Paul after Lennon and McCartney because his parents loved the Beatles. That is John Lennon and Paul McCartney, you understand, the main songwriters behind the Beatles, the highly successful sixties band…
When I first started editing, I myself wasn’t clear on what writing coaches and other experts meant by “Show, don’t tell”. It sounded like great advice, but how did it actually work in practice? Fittingly enough, I was shown the answer to this question via some of the manuscripts on which I was working, and the first intimation I had was through dialogue:
James and Minnie met for coffee.
“Hi, James, the usual?” said Minnie.
“Yes please,” said James gratefully.
“Two lattes please,” said Minnie to the barista. “So, James, how are you?” she asked, turning back to James.
“Great thanks, Minnie,” said James happily. “I’ve just won the promotion I was after at work, and my daughter’s been accepted to study at Cambridge,” he added proudly.
“My daughter can’t even be bothered to get up in the morning to go to the job centre,” said Minnie jealously.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Minnie,” said James sympathetically.
“Oh great, that makes all the difference,” said Minnie sarcastically.
I’ve added far more information than is needed in the above example. Let’s break it down.
“Hello, Minnie,” said James.
We already know that James and Minnie are the only characters involved in the scene, so “Hello, Minnie” is enough to show the readers that it’s James speaking. There’s really no need to tell them.
“I’ve been promoted and my daughter’s going to Cambridge.”
I’m sure the readers can work out from this statement how James is feeling. The words he’s spoken have shown them he’s proud – well, he’s hardly going to be feeling embarrassed about successful job promotions and prestigious university places. Sometimes, of course, you will have to tell the readers who’s speaking and who’s listening, but wherever possible ask yourself if you can dispense with the constant “he said”, “she said” after every piece of dialogue. Your writing will flow far better for it.
As well as showing the readers who is talking and how they’re feeling, dialogue can also give them plenty of clues about the characters’ personalities (Minnie is obviously rather a bitter and jealous woman, unable to appreciate her friend’s successes as she’s so bogged down by her perceived failures), their lives (James is clearly making a success of his, and they each have at least one daughter) and their tastes (they both enjoy a latte).
Now, I have done editing work for many authors who instinctively use the show rather than tell technique, and as a result their writing style is wonderful. Without doubt, their readers will be hungry for more. However, while having no intention of being patronising, I felt this post was a worthwhile exercise as there are plenty of authors, including those who already “get it”, who ask me to explain show, don’t tell. I hope I have succeeded.
This week I’ve touched upon dialogue, which is a favourite of mine both to read and to write, so next week I’ll delve into it in more depth.
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