The Dreaded Show vs. Tell – Guest post by CJ Davis

Today I’ve got CJ Davis here to talk about his Show vs Tell learning curve. Although it’s a simple concept, it takes a long time to get your head around it.

CJ Davis profile shotOne of my favorite movies of all time is the Matrix.

With the perfect combination of sci-fi, originality and action, the movie stands head and shoulders above most.

Like Neo, the main character from the Matrix who discovers he’s plugged into a virtual reality simulator, I recently had a similar awakening.

No, this awakening was not nearly as dramatic as finding out your whole life is a lie, and you are in fact facing an almost certain death by an evil robot army.

My awakening was more of the subtle kind, but for those who have gone through a similar enlightenment can attest it’s no small matter.

My editor opened my eyes to the dreaded show vs. tell rule, and my reading and writing experience has not been the same since.

The year was 2013 and the excitement of turning in my first novel to my editor had me giddy.

In my naivety, I was certain she was only going to reply with a few grammatical fixes.

Unfortunately, the email I finally received from her was foretelling of all the hard work I had in front of me.

The main focus of her critique was around the show vs. tell rule.

What the heck is show vs. tell I remember thinking.

I looked it up online, and immediately realized I had an enormous amount of work to do.

What is Show vs. Tell?

“Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text.” – Wikipedia

The show vs. tell rule is a very simple concept to understand, but difficult to do.

The most painful part of developing my craft as an author was learning how to write a scene as a “show.”

It took weeks of going back and forth with my editor on how to effectively do this.

At one point, in the early stages, she even suggested that perhaps I should get a ghost writer.

That was a low point for me.

What was very helpful for me on perfecting my show vs. tell writing abilities was working through exercises.

My editor would send me several “tell” phrases, and I would turn them into “shows”.

A couple examples of this include:

He was coming in, and she did not want him to know she’d been smoking.

She quickly grabbed the magazine, which ironically had a cigarette ad with a tough looking cowboy on the back cover, and desperately fanned the smoke out the window.

He didn’t like the coffee, but drank it to not hurt her feelings.

To avoid any ill will, he resisted the urge to make a bitter face after swallowing the mystery liquid she’d given him. It was supposed to be coffee, but he was sure the pool of water collecting on the street on the way in tasted more like coffee than what he just ingested.

After many hard months, and great coaching from my editor, the show vs. tells in my books had improved dramatically.

There is no question; the scenes are more compelling and engaging.  Here is an example from my novel, Blue Courage:

Before (Tell):

Continuing to dangle upside down from the Allosaurus’s clutching jaws; Rajiv didn’t give up. He continued to aggressively swing his blade trying to get the beast to drop him.  Every swing jostled his body and brought an almost unbearable pain to his ankle. The dinosaur appeared to be patiently waiting for his pesky prey to tire before he finished him off. Rajiv was running out of time, as he increasingly lost a lot of blood.

After (Show):

Rajiv grimaced as he felt the bones in his foot crack. Somewhere beyond the pain, he managed to pull his blade free of its sheath and tried to pierce the soft skin near the mouth of the beast. Blood poured from his wounds into his eyes. With a final shake from the beast, Rajiv’s sword flew from his hand and clattered to the ground.

Practice Makes Perfect

Much like Neo when he returns to the matrix, I see the world differently now.

When I’m reading, I see “tells” everywhere, and it always annoys me.

When I’m writing, I can spend twenty minutes on one paragraph, trying to create the perfect “show.”

Shows are inherently harder to pull off, but a necessary craft to master if you want to be a great writer.

Like almost everything in life, practice makes perfect.  Good luck.

CJ Davis is an American writer who lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife and two little girls. By day he is a marketing executive for a software company, and by night he writes novels. His artistic influences include: J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, George Romero, George Lucas, Billy Corgan, Max Brooks, and of course Tolkien, Koontz and King.

 

If you got something out of CJ’s advice on ‘Show vs. Tell’, please check out his book: Blue Courage.

Battle for the Afterlife book coverDeath is just the beginning for Navy SEAL Reese Hawthorne.

After an unlikely encounter with the girl of his dreams during a rescue mission in the drug cartel filled jungles of Mexico, Reese awakens in a futuristic city in the Afterlife.

A formidable, massive wall is the only thing protecting the city from countless ferocious prehistoric beasts, and hoards of ghoulish creatures, known as Lost Souls.

On the eve of a perilous cross-country race across the Afterlife realm between the forces of good and evil, war hangs in the balance on the heals of a loose treaty created hundreds of years ago.

Armed with deadly weapons and their enhanced physical abilities, like strength, vision and quickness–the most gifted warriors, are pitted against each other.

The first side to either destroy their opponents, or reach a distant ancient temple far outside the safety of the city walls, will win an unimaginable power, and change the outcome of humanity.

Reese must do everything he can to stop the forces of evil from winning the race and enslaving every free soul in the Universe.

You can see the trailer at CJ Davis’s Amazon Author Profile (bottom right).

If you like CJ’s advice on Show vs. Tell, you might like Amanda Bridgeman’s advice: How to write a thousand words (or maybe more). 

What’s your Show vs. Tell war story? Let us know in the comment.

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