Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Show, Don't Tell: Guest Post by Gina Drayer

Today, we have a special treat because the talented and insightful Gina Drayer.  She and I met through a writer's critique site and we've decided to guest post on one another's blogs this week.  She's going to present some new insights on the idea of 'show don't tell,' which I look forward to because that's something I struggle with quite a bit!  

Read on!

In a continuation of my Dear Author... series, today I'm here to talk about the dreaded "show, don't tell."

This is the number one advice given to new writers, and often the one that's misused and misinterpreted.  It's one I struggle with as a writer, so I have no advice as to how to do it effectively.  But as a reader I can tell you what doesn't work.

In an effort to "Show" the characters emotional state writers will often describe every twitch, head bob, and breathe a character makes.  If you find your text filled with sighs, nods, shrugs and eyebrow raises then you might have fallen a victim of this.

His heart hammered in his chest.  His eyes widened in surprise.  Her lip curled in a smirk.  He let out a sigh, shoulders slumped.  He clenched his fist at his sides.

These phrases scattered through out a work are descriptive to "show" the reader the character's emotions, but when every feeling is described in detail with gestures and facial expressions all you've done is give your character Tourette's.

An excellent example of how this can go wrong can be found in a breakdown of New Moon's Chapter 18 (this is not a critique of Stephanie Myers and her books, but just an illustration of what I mean).  Within that chapter alone there are eyes that flash, flicker, dart, glare, stare, relocated, widen, go flat, penetrate, blink, dazed and far away, show revulsion and reflect.  And this was just the descriptions of the eyes!!  There are many examples of facial expressions and arm/leg movement.  To see a full breakdown check out:

While reading this not only gives me the impression that the character has some sort of uncontrollable tic, but it also interrupts the pacing of the piece.  It slows down the reading and brings you out of the story.

So when it comes to "Show, Don't Tell" is there a meaningful difference between saying: "She was scared." And "Her eyes widen and she inhaled suddenly."  Not really, to be honest they are both lazy storytelling.  Show those actions not through detailed descriptions of her facial expressions, but through her dialog and actions.

Try perhaps:

When she heard the click of the gun safety, she turned around and saw the end of pistil staring back at her.  "Please.  You don't have to do this," she said in a low whisper, trying to keep her breath steady, but she could already feel the panic rise in her throat.

Sure, sure, pick apart my writing.  But this is just an illustration of how a little bit of showing, a little bit of telling and some dialog paint a better picture then over describing every detail just to show that she was afraid.

She heard the gun safety click off.  Afraid, her eyes went wide and she stopped breathing.  Sweat broke out on her forehead and she closed her eyes.  With her hands clenched at her side, she swallowed and said, "Don't shoot."

So dear author, please, please don't bombard me with over descriptive facial gestures and shrugs.  I have an imagination and if you've given your character depth and a strong voice I naturally add those actions in my mind.  I feel the fear, the love, the heartache, the joy.  I'll fill in the blanks that you leave behind.

Gina Drayer is a part time Author, full time mother and geek at heart.  Her blog, The Agony of the Untold Story ( follows her musing on publishing, books, being a geek, and raising children.

To read my post on her blog, go to