Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Editing - Show and Tell (and big scary sharks!)

Remember show and tell in kindergarten?

The students talk about an object they brought from home for a few minutes before the others get a chance to examine the object up close. They have the chance to see it and touch it. Depending on the item, all of the senses come into play, and they might be able to smell, taste, or listen to it as well. Then the teacher keeps the class moving quickly and asks the next student to take his turn.

Children can have short attention spans, though, so why does show and tell work?

Let me illustrate the answer with my own personal show and tell. I considered becoming a marine biologist when I was younger because I am fascinated by sea life. One of the most fantastic creatures to live in the ocean was the Megalodon. This enormous shark became extinct about 1.5 million years ago. It could reach lengths of 40 - 50 feet - larger than a city bus - and its teeth are the size of an adult’s hand. Cool stats, right? But I’ll bet you checked out the photos before reading this entire paragraph.

When writing and editing, it’s recommended that you show not tell. Use the words to paint a picture and include as many of the senses as you can.

Here’s an example of a scene I cut from Magick Charm:

            “Most stalkers are loser ex-boyfriends or someone the stalkee already knows.”
            “That can’t be right,” I said. “If that was true, it would be easy for police to catch the guy doing the stalking, right?”
            “As if. That’s where it starts to really suck. Because lots of places don’t even have laws against being a clingy, scary asshole.”
             “What are you talking about?” I asked. Sometimes Rachel spoke her own language, and nobody else understood what she was talking about, least of all me.
            “No stalker laws,” she said, frustrated I didn’t understand her random banter. “Stalker laws are fairly new, and lots of places have to get with the program. Other places blow them off. And lots of assholes still believe the woman who gets stalked deserves it. You saw Officer Roberts the other night. How much help is a tool like him going to give us?”
            “None,” I agreed. “But others like Officer Beaty will help us.”
            “Yeah,” she admitted. “She’s cool.”
            “Back to the stats.” I brought Rachel’s focus back to the central question. “Do you honestly think it’s someone we know who’s causing this trouble? And why?”
             “Nah, our friends are cool. But I did live with Ted for a while. Maybe I suck at judging character.”

Why did I remove this scene? Because all it did was tell. It’s boring because nothing happens here. It’s more of an information dump than a well-rounded scene. Wouldn’t it be better for me to convey this information through the characters’ actions? Can’t I show how the police’s hands are tied in the ways they respond to the sisters’ calls for help? And there are so many ways to illustrate how much stalkers suck through his (or her!) actions.

I try to think of writing like show and tell. Keep the action moving so nobody gets bored. Paint the picture with words – show – more than overwhelming the reader with an information dump. Tell only in small doses.

Still need convincing? Then ask yourself - the next time you’re at the beach are you going to remember my statistics about a big extinct shark, or will you remember the artist’s drawing of the Megalodon? I thought so.

While you’re sunbathing on that beach, convinced never to swim in the ocean again, you might want to check out the Meg series by Steve Alten. It makes a great summer beach read!


  1. Excellent illustration.

    For me, showing involves internals. I tend to write in direct thoughts. If the character thinks he's being lied to, I don't write, 'I knew he was lying.' I write, 'Bull*$!^!, thinks he's clever. Dumb S.O.B.!'

  2. Hi Mike! Great example! And it tells the reader more about your characters when you offer a glimpse at their inner thoughts.

  3. Great Post Jennifer! I figure if what I can write about a character in a page can be said by the character is a sentence... that's when I know it was irrelevant. Dump the page, dialogue a sentence, done (and only if it pertinent to the POV of the character, otherwise, dump it altogether... wasted space...).

    Dottie :)

  4. This is a really important tip. I'm thinking about my non-fiction writing and seeing how I can do this as well. :)

  5. Replies
    1. It's a Carcharadon Megalodon, an extinct shark that may be an early ancestor to the Great White.