Thursday, March 1, 2012

Show and Tell

What makes the difference between a good story and a great one?  What causes you to keep going back to that old faithful book you know inside out?  For me, it's when I can truly visualize the work inside.

Consider the following passage:
Mike was hungry, so he sat down at the counter and ordered a cheeseburger.  His longtime friend Lou grilled up a nice fat patty, making small talk with him the whole time.  Finally, Mike picked up the burger, his mouth watering in anticipation.  He bit down and savored the flavor, and it was everything he'd hoped it would be.

Okay, so you might get a picture of a hungry guy who is having a nice lunch.  Now consider this:
Mike's insides gnawed at him the way they did years ago at fat camp.  He plopped down on the worn stool at the counter and snapped his fingers.  Lou, a cigarette dangling from his lips, didn't even need to hear the order - he layered two hunks of cheddar on the 1/4 lb patty as smoke rose from the grill.  Soon, Mike's prize sat before him, and he scooped it up with the glee of a ten year old who'd discovered his first Playboy.  When he bit into the burger, his tongue sang as a little bit of grease spilled down the side of Mike's mouth.  Sighing heavily, he knew life didn't get much better than this.
Yes, interpretation is subjective, but I think the second passage gives you a much more clear picture of just how much this burger meant to Mike.  Why?  Because the visual painted a much better picture of the emotions, as well as how eager Mike was to finally get what he wanted.  I pictured a man of passion who was nearly lustful for this heart attack inducing meal.

One of the biggest things I've always been told by fellow writers, and one of the hardest things to put into practice, is to show the story instead of trying to tell it.  Anyone - well...almost anyone - can look at a situation and describe what they see, but it takes a special talent to put the reader into the situation as well.  I don't know about you when you read it, but as I typed the above passage, my mouth watered just a little.  Come to think of it, I might just go get a burger right now.  Hang on - I'll be right back.

Miss me?  I certainly feel more satisfied.  Now, where was I?

Oh yes, showing instead of telling.  This is where the art of writing comes into the mix.  You can't go right for the heart and describe what's happening straight up.  You have to go around the issue somewhat and allow the reader to imagine just how hungry the main character is, or how angry, or how jealous...whatever you're trying to convey in the storyline.  You could say, "Jill was jealous," and the reader will yawn, and if you're lucky, might put the book down and return to it later.  If you're unlucky, they'll drop it and go on to something more interesting.  What you want is for the reader to feel that Jill is jealous and really get into what she's going to do about it.  Some of the best compliments I've ever gotten from those who've read my work is when they tell me they could envision it as a movie, because that's when I know I've gotten them to visualize the story instead of simply reading it.

I've spoken about my editing process, but during my final read-through, I'll always examine each passage, think about what I wanted the reader to feel, and see if I can better show them.  Sometimes telling is necessary, but it shouldn't be the default position.  When you can evoke emotion, be it happiness, sadness, or rage, you've really captured the spirit of your work.  And isn't that what we all want to do in the end?


  1. Awesome piece Russ....just what I needed while working on editing my first two chapters. Great insght. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I look forward to reading Paws on the Ground.