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Show AND Tell

Adapted from “Show and Tell: There’s a Reason It’s Called Storytelling” by Carol-Lynn Marrazzo

Contrary to what you may think or may have been led to believe, writers TELL their stories. Take a look at this package from Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”:

 

“She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decide that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, “All right,” it was like surrendering to him completely.”

Note that each of the following sentences are ALL telling:

“There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decide that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. This boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her….it was like surrendering to him completely.”

Again, from Peter Taylor’s “The Gift of the Prodigal”

“And I hear my bewildered voice saying, “I do…I do.” And “Don’t go, Rick, my boy.” My eyes even misted over. But I still meet his eyes across the now too silent room. He looks at me in the most compassionate way imaginable. I don’t think any child of mine has ever looked at me so before. Or perhaps it isn’t really with compassion as he is viewing me but with the sudden, gratifying knowledge that it is not, after all, such a one-sided business, the business between us. He keeps his right hand on the doorknob a few seconds longer. Then I hear the latch click and know he has let go. Meanwhile, I observe his left hand making that familiar gesture, his fingers splayed, his hand tilting back and froth. I am out of my chair now. I go to to the desk and bring out two Danlys cigars from another desk drawer, which I keep locked. He is there ready to receive my offering when I turn around. He accepts the cigar without smiling, and I give it without smiling, too”

In this passage, each of the following sentences is TELLING, not showing:

” …bewildered…misted…now too silent…in the most compassionate way imaginable. I don’t think any child of mine has ever looked at me so before. Or perhaps it isn’t really with compassion as he is viewing me but with the sudden, gratifying knowledge that it is not, after all, such a one-sided business, the business between us…know he has let go…familiar gesture…ready to receive my offering when I turn around.”

If only the showing portion of this passage were available, would a reader have any idea of the subtle understanding that has transpired between father and son? Taylor’s strategy is to ground the passage through the father’s keen senses (showing) while at the same time giving the reader access to his most intimate thoughts and feelings (telling) – while keeping the action moving forward.

Try showing AND telling if the transformative moment of any story where the action has not yet been effectively rendered. Don’t be afraid to use the word “felt.” It it seems impossible to TELL, you may not know your characters or your story as well as you think you do.

See http://www.mypearsonstore.com/bookstore/product.asp?isbn=0205616887 for more exercises to improve your fiction and good luck!

 

 

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