The best way to learn is by example! You’ve all heard: “Show, don’t tell”, right? This example illustrates the difference between showing and telling (plus helpful editing tips).
The Before paragraph is telling us. The After paragraph is showing.
Anna gazed at the car (1) they had dutifully restored and repaired. Anna and Anne (2) had loved renovating and decorating the old car they had purchased almost ten years ago,(3) when Anne was just a toddler. Anne had told Anna(4) that she much preferred spending her time learning the finer details of mechanics to the neighborhood kids who spent the majority of their time running around aimlessly with no real purpose. (5) “I like spending time with you,” she had told Anna. (6) She was telling the truth. (7)
1. This is another case of filtering setting through a character’s observation. Every time you have a character look, gaze, examine, or notice something, try to figure out if you can get rid of that observation. Just state it and give any details needed.
2. I am a huge proponent of NOT having character’s with too similar of names. Here’s the reason: Names become placeholders that our eyes skim over as we read. In the same way that our brain recognizes the shapes of words instead of actually reading them, we gloss over names only to know who is speaking/acting. We don’t actually read it every time. if you have names that are too similar, you can easily confuse readers who then have to more carefully scrutinize each sentence. You don’t want readers wasting time on figuring out who is talking. You want them anxiously turning the next page to find out what happens next.
3. What type of car? A couple concrete, visual details would really liven up this scene.
4. See how it feels weird to have similar character names so close together?
5. This doesn’t sound like the voice of a pre-teen. It doesn’t even sound like a voice at all. It sounds like the narrator. Don’t summarize dialogue in a way that makes it feel unnatural to the characters. Show us the character’s dialogue.
6. This is redundant to the sentence preceding it.
7. Does this imply that Anna thought Anne was lying? Or that we, as the audience, would have reason to doubt her statement? Aside from that, this is an unhelpful statement that doesn’t really tell us anything we weren’t told already.
The blue Volkswagen Beetle sat in Anna’s driveway, its engine humming with pride. (1)
“It only took five years, kid,” Anna said. “But we got it up and running again. Ain’t she gorgeous?” The engine was as spotless as the new paint job.(2)
Ellie put her hands on hips and flashed a beaming smile. Only 12 years old, and she knew more about rebuilding a transmission than she did about the neighbor kids two miles down the road. (3)
“We did a good job, didn’t we?” Ellie patted the Beetle’s hood.
“Absolutely, kid,” Anna said. She reached through the open window and switched off the engine. The quiet lasted about thirteen seconds.
Ellie slammed the hood closed. “What are we gonna work on next?” (4)
1. Giving the proper name, year, and color of the car will let people visualize it. Even if they don’t know cars, the details themselves are what stands out.
2. Dialogue is queen. With dialogue, you can give the reader details without feeling like it’s being narrated. Narration is fine and necessary in its place, but putting information in dialogue is a more organic way of providing information, backstory, and character traits.
3. This version takes the information out of the character’s voice and instead presents it as a narrative comment. That way, we get the information, but we’re not getting it in a weird almost-dialogue way. There’s a balance to be had between dialogue (step 2) and narration (this step). Make sure you’re not being redundant with either, and make sure the tone and method of information-providing matches its delivery method.
4. See how this is showing us that Ellie likes spending time with Anna, but it avoids the declarative, unfounded statements from the Before version?
Addition Notes: When we talk about “show don’t tell,” we don’t always mean visual imagery versus narrative stage direction. We mean that it is often (not always, but often) better to provide information and action in a way that feels tied to the story and its characters. Voice-over can work in movies (sometimes), and even in books (sometimes), but it’s a much more effective to slip the information in seamlessly.
What do YOU think? How would you tweak/change the Before paragraph in order to show us the scene’s emotions? What are your thoughts on what to add/take away to make it better?