Have you mastered SHOWING versus TELLING? Three easy ways to check

One of the things writers hear often is that their words should be showing readers the story and the action versus telling them about it. This is easily said, not as easily done.

As a freelance editor, this is one of the issues I confront most when I evaluate new authors as potential clients. It is possible to learn–on the first page of the work–whether the show vs. tell skill has been mastered. How? I’ll show you through an example. Read the paragraph below:

“I was only sixteen years old, and yet I’d been to more bars than I cared to count. My mother had taken me to her jobs when I was a kid, and I’d ended up feeling more at home sitting on a high stool in front of a dingy bar top than I did at our kitchen table. Tonight the bar was crowded and the man sitting beside me was too interested in me for my liking. He kept glancing over, trying to see what I was reading, waiting for me to make eye contact so he could talk to me. I kept my eyes on my book, nursing the Diet Coke I’d ordered. When my phone chimed in my pocket, I was happy to find my friend Tara texting me, asking if I wanted to come see a new band with her tomorrow.”

Let’s look at three things to see if this is more telling or showing:

  1. Is there any dialogue?
  2. Does the reader feel as if he/she is sitting there beside the character experiencing what she’s experiencing?
  3. Is there any action–does anything actually HAPPEN?

In my mind, the answer to all three is no. Resoundingly no. Imagine yourself sitting there next to our girl. As far as you can tell, she’s just sitting there, right? Because all the ACTION and all the DIALOGUE takes place in her head. This is an author braindump–and don’t get me wrong–sometimes you need a few paragraphs of character reflection, especially after a big turning point in your story. But if this kind of narrative is happening at the beginning? In the first page or two? Then you’ve chosen the wrong place to start your story. Or you need a rewrite.

Wanna see what I mean? Try this one:

I walked into the bar where my mother was working and slid onto a high stool. “Diet Coke, please.”

Mom winked at me and slid a soda to me in one fluid motion. She was like the drink whisperer, she’d been working at bars so long. “Here ya go, darlin’. Homework tonight?”

I held up my book and then dropped it back on the dingy bar top. Mom nodded and moved away, but I’d unfortunately attracted the attention of the man sitting on the stool next to me.

“What’ve you got there?” he drawled, leaning over to read my Origins of Greek Tragedies book over my shoulder.

I let my eyes rise to take in his face. Scraggly beard, check. Yellow teeth, check. Narrow vulture eyes, check. He was pretty much every customer my mom had been serving in the sixteen years I’d been trailing her to her places of work.

“Mom?” I called, the plea in my voice drawing Mom to my spot at the bar immediately. This wasn’t our first rodeo.

“Hey there, Bern,” she said, leaning over the bar and refilling the creeper’s glass. “That there is my daughter. She’s super smart and she’s on track to a scholarship.” She smiled, her dark eyes crinkling around the corners. “Couldn’t be more proud.”

The man raised his glass to me.

“She’s also a minor, so why don’t you just scoot down a stool or two and let her study in peace, okay?”

Bern put his glass back down and scooted over as my phone chimed in my pocket.

So it’s a bit longer, but it’s also more engaging. Dialogue and movement allow for white space in your narrative, which relieves the readers’ eye — that’s something we’ll talk about later in a different post, but you see how it helps here.

Now ask the same three questions:

  1. Is there any dialogue?
  2. Does the reader feel as if he/she is sitting there beside the character experiencing what she’s experiencing?
  3. Is there any action–does anything actually HAPPEN?

This kind of active writing also helps with another big issue I see writers struggle with: PACING.

And that’s another post, too!

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