You know that old writers’ adage “show don’t tell?” It’s an incredibly important piece of advice. As important as tight lug nuts on the wheels of your literary car.
Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best one, but you get the picture. “Show don’t tell” means that you include enough imagery, enough action and dialog for the reader to figure things out on their own. It’s as important to your progress as wheels staying on your car.
I recently picked up a book by Chris Colfer – he played Kurt on Glee and it turns out he’s quite the writer. I like him. I think he’s funny and talented.
But my praise for him falls short in his most recent book. The Land of Stories – an Author’s Odyssey Book 5. Granted I hadn’t read the previous books (shame on me for not paying attention when I bought this book) and granted it’s written for a young (middle school) audience but Geeze Louise! Just take a look at the following passages.
“I’ve brought you all here to witness the birth of an era,” the Masked Man preached. “But before we achieve a new future, the ways of the past must be destroyed and the leaders of the past are no exception!”
The Masked Man gestured to a large wood platform below the balcony, on the lawn between the palace and the dried lake. A very tall man in a long black cloak climbed to the top of the platform and placed a large wooden block in the center.
A dozen flying monkey pulled a wagon out from behind the place. It carried all the former kings and queens of the fairy tale world…(long list of names)
The tall man on the platform withdrew a large silver axe from inside his cloak. The civilians began screaming and shouting in horror once they realized the purpose of it – the Masked Man was going to have the royal family executed!”
It’s that last sentence that I object to. Colfer had done a great job to that point of showing his audience what was happening. The characters in the story even figured it out, but then he threw in a sentence to make sure we were told what was happening.
Look at the passage again and remove that last italicized part of the sentence. It leaves us hanging with horror and outrage, an appropriate response. It does not leave us with an exclamation point of excitement. This is an excellent example of how showing is so much more effective than telling.
I read that passage out loud to my daughter emphasizing the italicized sentence.
“Well duh,” she said “it’s an execution.”
Little bit of writing advice here – writers NEVER want their readers to say “Well duh.”
A few pages later, we read about how a trap door opened and how the entire royal party managed to escape by way of horses and a carriage hidden underneath the execution platform.
“To his horror, he saw Goldilocks on Porridge and Jack on Buckle! The couple steered the horses and the carriage into the forest beyond the palace, knocking over dozens of Winkie soldiers as they went. The execution had turned into a rescue mission right before the Masked Man’s eyes!”
Again, “well duh.”
Once again, remove that “telling” sentence at the end (and while you’re at it get rid of about half of the exclamation marks he uses) and you end up with a tighter, more vivid story that relies on the reader to connect the (very obvious) dots.
Now granted I haven’t read the first 4 books and this may be Colfer’s style. I know that his audience is young readers, but please – as writers you must give your readers credit. If you’ve done a good job with the descriptions, action, and dialogue you shouldn’t have to spell out *anything*. Your readers should be able to figure it out on their own.
Next time you hear “show, don’t tell” think of this example. When you write, it’s your job to set things up clearly enough for your readers to “get it.” If you haven’t, then it’s also your job to go back, figure out why not, and then strengthen your work so they do.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.