Tell versus Show

horror and zombie fiction published by Barbara CusterA while ago I turned down a manuscript because it had, as I put it, a lot of “tells.” This is something I’ve struggled with in my writing; as an editor, I can spot an issue right away. The author took my answer in stride, but he asked me to explain what I meant. This I did, but I got to wondering if other folks struggle with show-versus-tell.

Let’s look at the following paragraph:

Mary loves her Mylar balloons. Every time she goes to the store, she adds another floral shape or butterfly to her collection. She’s got every balloon shape imaginable.

This is a one-dimensional statement telling us that Mary loves balloons. But we do not see Mary in action when she buys them. We don’t see the expression on her face. The statement tells us nothing else about Mary, so why should the reader care?

Paragraph Two:

A Mylar butterfly balloon beckoned to Mary as she shuffled into the supermarket, shoulders drooping. Perched on a display stand, it glimmered with rainbow colors. “Balloon!” Mary cried, clasping her hands together. “So beautiful.” She could almost hear the balloon’s call: “Oh, Mary! Mary!” Shopping list forgotten, she raced down the aisle and snatched the balloon up in her arms. Its shushing sounds took the edge off her sadness. With a broad smile, she headed to the cashier to buy.

Now, this paragraph needs more detail. What if Mary had a long shopping list or a Spartan budget? Conflict arises. Does she buy the balloon, and if she does, does she go into debt or forego groceries? We know that something was bothering her. Perhaps she has little time for errands, or she has to make every penny count. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to hear more about Mary and what her balloons do for her.

Alas, it’s hard to see the defects in my manuscripts. The story I’m working on is my baby. For me to edit, it would be similar to a doctor treating his family. So I always hire an outside person to edit my work. Even with the welcome page for Night to Dawn, I ask someone to read. There are also my buddies from the Hatboro Writer’s Group, who serves as my beta readers. One issue people have had with my developing stories is the poverty of body language. Showing how the character feels has been a struggle, but I find that putting a story aside for a few days allows me to gain a fresh perspective for a rewrite.

The show-versus-tell conundrum continues. Has this been a problem for you? I’d like to hear your experiences and thoughts.

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