Writes of Passage – Show and Tell

As a writer, I am always striving to become better at my trade with the ultimate goal of being the best that I can be. Currently, I’m focusing on writing that does more showing than it does telling. Sounds relatively easy, no? It’s actually a bit trickier than you might imagine.

Show, don’t tell is a technique writers often employ to communicate their stories by way of the characters’ actions, thoughts, senses, and feelings, rather than by summation or description. But, if you’ve ever taken a Creative Writing class, chances are your professor has harped on you about not using enough imagery in your writing. Imagery is the technique of communicating depth, and creating easily imaginable scenes and locations by using vivid descriptions (which often utilize adjectives and/or similes). Having said that, descriptive language is what our minds automatically want to adhere to, in order to allow the reader to more deeply experience the writing. Though descriptive writing and imagery are both useful in certain instances, they’re also a form of telling. Telling is easier than showing, but showing is always better. When describing, say, a place, imagery is useful, but when combined with a character’s thoughts or actions, it’s even more useful. I realize that’s a loaded sentence, so here’s an example:

TellingThe Gateway Arch is a massive structure in St. Louis. 

ShowingI sit at the base of the Gateway Arch, its ceiling towering overheard at 630 feet, and casting a shadow skewed by the nearby buildings. 

Which one would you rather read? Both generally get the point across, but the former is boring. The latter allows the reader to picture the Gateway Arch without the overuse of imagery, and includes the character’s action, offering a firsthand account.

It isn’t always easy to write in a way that shows, especially since it is a natural inclination to want to simply tell. Since it’s NaNoWriMo, I am trying to write my novel in a way that shows, but I’m not convinced I’ve nailed it just yet. What follows is my novel in its entirety so far–don’t worry, it’s only 796 words. You’ll see that the introduction of Sadie, Etta’s lover, is rather abrupt. But that was deliberate, as I was trying to imply that they’re romantically involved via their shared kiss, instead of explicitly stating it. You tell me- is that the notion you gather from my writing, or can it stand to be improved?

The deviled eggs have a more viscous quality to their appearance the longer they’ve been in the fridge. I shift my focus outwards to notice the expansive spread of food on the table. My eyes pan from left to right: all kinds of meats and poultries, seafood, breads, hors d’oeuvres, salad mix-ins, fruits, vegetables, sweets. I haven’t eaten in hours and can hardly wait until dinner. I reach for a carrot and dunk it halfway into the container of vegetable dip; I am overzealous in my dunking and my fingertips themselves collide with the surface of the dip.
I pop the carrot into my mouth, and the loud crunch of my chewing doesn’t allow me to concentrate on much else. I can pick out bits of conversation:
“…I’m telling you, he’s crazy, but she stays…”
“…I haven’t been there in so long. Not since…”
“…and it didn’t fit; I thought I was doing so well…”
Nothing in particular catches my ear and I lose interest. I take a seat on the floor next to Grandpa’s arm chair in the living room—the indent still looks as if he’d just gotten up, but it hasn’t been filled in years. He added a certain sense of warmth to these gatherings when he was around. I truly miss him.
Wyckoff trots over to where I sit. He looks at me expectantly, his tongue hanging limp out of his mouth, his head cocked. I raise my eyebrows and shrug at him. He cocks his head to the other side. I extend an arm to pet him, his snout intently following my fingers as they approach his head. He hops up on his hind legs and begins licking the residual vegetable dip from my fingers, which I had forgotten about. When he finishes, he circles my lap in search of a quintessential resting spot, and curls up. My stomach rumbles.
Merrin makes her way into the living room from behind me, carrying a platter. She sets it down on the coffee table around which everybody is gathered.
“Here,” she starts. A platter of cheeses, crackers, and tapenade. “Gnaw on this for a bit until we’re ready to break into that God-given feast over there.” Everyone adlibs their digging in.
I can hear the uncadenced clink of glasses and the chime of silverware coming from the dining room. The dispersion of fine china. The unmistakable chatter of Uncle Lorne’s pill bottle. The swipe of a matchstick along a striking surface to light the candles in the left- and right-center of the dining room table, presumably followed by the dimming of the lights. I don’t look to check, but that’s always what comes next.
Wyckoff stirs. His attention is stolen by a familiar lure: Aunt Etta’s fingers tapping on the hearthstone. The incomparable sound of long, healthy nails dipped in blood-red polish tapping metrically on the floor in front of the fireplace—a sound we are all accustomed to but one that has, in recent years, neutralized into the ambience. Wyckoff hops out of my legs, and the warmth of where he lay dissipates as he gallops over to Etta’s girthy, more hospitable lap.
“Oh,” she says, slightly startled by her visitor, “Jumping from one person to the next without warning; sounds a lot like Dane.” Etta snickers.
“Hey,” Merrin responds, “knock it off. I don’t think you started this tradition to talk ill of former lovers,” she finishes.
“You’re right, I didn’t. But it’s sure turned out that way,” Etta says bitterly.
“It’s alright,” Sadie offers, rubbing Etta’s shoulder gently. “We’ve all been spurned, and if it weren’t for Dane, you and I would never have crossed paths.” She smiles reassuringly. They share a kiss, and Etta settles into repose. Wyckoff follows suit as he rests his head in between Etta’s thighs, peacefully closing his eyes.

A familiar scent wafts in from the dining room; brisket, perhaps? Maybe roast. It is difficult to tell; the individual smells of the food come together and swirl around in the air overhead. For a moment, I am at ease, fixated on the imminent feast. But my flash of tranquility is over now, and I am pulled back into reality upon remembering who I’ll be dining with. I sip my wine and swallow hard.
This family—my family—I am inclined to compare to an apple: its true colors show when dissected. We are better left unexamined and admired exteriorly, and we are sweeter this way, too.
Uncle Lorne hobbles into the living room, his brow furrowed. He bangs on the archway. “Dinner,” he announces sternly. The tail-ends of conversation dissolve, and like clockwork, we file into the dining room. I wonder who will cast the first stone, and who it will strike.

What can I do to better show the nature of Sadie and Etta’s relationship without telling? Honest opinions and all advice are welcome!

Edit: I realize the formatting was lost upon pasting my excerpt into the blog post text box- it’s a bit harder to read, and I apologize. But bear with me; I promise there is proper indentation in the text document itself. 🙂


7 thoughts on “Writes of Passage – Show and Tell

  1. This is excellent. Wyckoff is a dog? I saw a cat in the initial two sentences, and I cannot discern what breed of dog. I also don’t know what any of the people look like. And who is Dane? Still, very little to be said besides excellent. Kept me engaged and wanting for more.

    1. Thank you so much. Wyckoff is indeed a dog, and as far as his breed goes, I haven’t disclosed it because I don’t know it, myself, yet. I avoided explicitly stating that he was a dog because I wanted to make it evident in his actions, so I’m glad that point got across. I also wanted to leave each character’s appearance up to interpretation of the reader, which is why I didn’t bother to describe them. Is that too vague?

      Dane is the last man that Etta ever dated before she met Sadie. This will be revealed later on.

      Again, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. More will be posted soon.

  2. HI there,
    I think what you’ve done with your story is great and you’ve got a knack for creating the scene that flows with the story without stopping it for a lengthy description. From a readers perspective, I think that’s important and makes it more enjoyable. I’m also an aspiring novelist so from a writer’s point of view, for me personally, showing instead of telling is preferable but not always easy to do. I think less can be more in some instances.
    The scene where Sadie and Etta’s relationship is introduced is good but after Sadie’s comment the flow seems to change so I was thinking maybe you could combine the two sentences from sharing a kiss and Etta’s reaction into one. For example : With ease, Etta settles against Sadie sharing a kiss OR Sharing a kiss, Etta settles with ease into Sadie’s arms. Something along those lines.
    Just a thought.

    1. Hi there!

      I see what you’re saying about the flow changing after Sadie’s introduction, and I agree. I’ll condense and rewrite to allow it to flow better. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed this, and thank you for the kind words. Showing can certainly be a fun mode to write in, and I have to admit it’s easier than I initially thought it would be. But there’s always room for improvement. Next, I need to work on avoiding passive voice.

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