"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." - Walt Disney

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Show, Don’t Tell

How many times have you been told “Show, Don’t Tell” your audience what’s happening and what your characters are feeling? Many of us don’t know exactly what this means.

You have the power to make people think of something or believe they saw/read something they did not. Let’s try an exercise. Get a piece of paper and something to write with. This will only take a minute or two if you are honest and don’t cheat.

Below is a list of 12 words, you can take just a few seconds to read them to yourself or out loud to someone else. Read them at the same rate you read when you are enjoying a book or magazine article. When you are finished, and without looking back at them, take 30 seconds to write as many of them as you can remember. No cheating! Then, read the paragraph below the list before you check your answers. Ready? Go:

Bed, rest, night, pillow, dream, blanket, alarm, tired, pajamas, yawn, nap, and snore.

Did you get the word Sleep? Sleep is not one of the words, but many will include it in their list because of inferences (making people think or believe something without outright telling them). The average person will only accurately remember about five of them.

This is what authors mean by show, don’t tell. The truth is, a great writer knows how and when to do both: show and tell. When I taught high school, I used this exercise as well as the following one to help students acquaint themselves with details, actions and expressions.

Christopher Vogler, Hollywood screenwriter and author of The Writer’s Journey, suggested this exercise to me called “reverse engineering”. You watch a movie and after each scene stop the video and write what happened. Describe the events, copy dialogue; describe the setting, clothing, characters involved etc.

Whether you are writing a book, short story or screenplay, this is a great way to work on new ways to “show and tell”.

Side note: Don’t forget to enter the giveaway contest in the previous post. You only have a few days left. Happy writing!


Laurie Kolp said...

Thanks for sharing these wonderful tips. I look forward to reading your posts!

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Terri Tiffany said...

I love this way of showing how to show and not tell. I know I am guilty of sometimes telling more than I should and this method will help me think about what I can do better. Thanks!

Unknown said...

This is one of the best examples of show don't tell. Great writing exercise.

The Sisterhood said...

That is amazing. I only "remembered" six words and "sleep" was one of them. Ha ha!

Great exercise!


Kari Marie said...

This is a great exercise. I will think of this when I'm doing my rewrites. I remembered 9 of them, but I didn't write down sleep. I guess I failed!

The Blogger Formerly Known As said...

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Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

great exercise. It's all too easy to tell. It takes a bit of thought and practise to show.

Arlee Bird said...

The movie exercise is an interesting one. When I'm writing fiction or an account of something I'm playing it in my head as thought watching a movie so I can see how this exercise would work in a very similar way.

Tossing It Out and the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge 2011

Samantha Vérant said...

It's hard breaking the habit of telling--but when you do, the writing sings! Nice post!