Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Show or Tell?

Is it cold in your neck of the woods? The low tonight in South Texas should be a cool 35 degrees. Not too bad compared to most of the country. But inside my house, my children and I are huddled under blankets and shivering as we’re passing the flu to one another.

Last week, I gave your guidelines for showing or telling. Let’s look at a few examples.

This entry won a contest:

The colored lights and festival atmosphere had charmed April when she’d first arrived. She loved strolling among the caf├ęs, boutiques, street vendors, and hotels that lined the shallow, murky water. Anonymous in the crowd of tourists, Latinos, and cowboys, who flooded the riverbanks seeking entertainment. No one called her name. No one needed more than she had to give.

The sultry afternoon heat drove her into one of the air-conditioned restaurants. But in the evenings, she sipped margaritas and sat beneath one of the bright umbrellas at tiny, wrought-iron tables next to the river, listening to Mariachis—musicians wearing traditional black, short jackets and tight pants. The musicians filled the air with the rich sounds of their vihuelas, or round-backed guitars, along with their sweet violins and brilliant trumpets.

Yet, now that she worked on the River Walk night after night, the place had lost its allure. Tonight, the carnival atmosphere wearied her.

The writing was praised for “precise nouns” and for “well-placed, vivid verbs that take your form feeling festive, to knowing there is something deeply wrong.”

It’s a fairly well written scene. Is it showing or telling?

It’s very descriptive. There are specific nouns and verbs, but there’s really no action. There's no scene that’s taking place in real time. I’m painting the setting and telling you about April.

Let’s look at another example:

Sarah Wilson peeked into the hall closet. Empty--except for a handful of coat hangers. Would the new owners want them? Probably not. She snatched them off the rod.

This house held so many memories. Roger had carried her over the threshold. On a budget, they’d saved and had carefully decorated each room, buying each piece of furniture one at a time on lay-away. Over the years, three babies--Justin, Richard, and Maddie--had been brought home from the hospital. They’d been nurtured here until they’d made lives in other places.

She opened the door wider and studied the incremental marks on the wall beside the doorframe. The new owners would undoubtedly paint over these measurements marking her children's milestones. She sighed. If only she could take the drywall with her. The digital photo she'd downloaded on her laptop would have to suffice.

Sarah fingered the key in her pocket. Tomorrow, she'd have to hand it over to the new owners. She'd no longer have the right to call this old house "home." A new family would live here. Laugh here. Love here. She closed the door firmly and forced her herself to turn away.

She took a deep breath and put a hand on her chest, then thought of the plans she'd made for her move to Florida. She imagined the palm trees and sunny days. This would be the first Christmas of her new life.

Is it showing or telling? Here, I’m showing Sarah doing things. Sarah peeked, opened, sighed, imagined. You see her in action. You also see interior monologue, which is not telling. But I tried to trick you in the second paragraph because that was telling.

Do you see the difference? Good.

I’m taking more Tylenol and going back to bed.

~Roxanne Sherwood

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