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Telling and Showing

January 21, 2013

The first piece of advice every new writer must grapple with is, “Show, don’t tell.” In order to make a story come alive, writers need to create vivid scenes where actions unfold and characters act and react in real time. In the scene below, Nadia practices flying with the rest of her team.

Nadia flushed. “Try again?”

“Yep. This time, I’m not helping. Keep your legs together when you land. If you’re coming in fast, you can really twist your ankle if you don’t land properly.”

Nadia stood with her feet evenly balanced. She focused her attention on the red sumac again, sprinted forward and glided towards it, kicking her legs.

Kam whipped past her.  “Looking good!” he yelled.

She didn’t look at him, but focused on the sumac, and as it drew nearer, swung her legs under her, pressed her knees together and thudded to the ground. She fell forward on her knees.

“Better!” Mike sculled the air just above her. “Next time, bend your knees when you land.”

 Showing readers vivid, active scenes and characters draws them into the fictional world but too much showing can be tedious, particularly when a character’s growth or development takes place over time. Sometimes, telling, or narrative summary, is a useful tool.

Nadia practiced over and over until she could land without falling. After about a dozen tries, she even managed to take her eyes of her target to look around once or twice at the others. They did sprints across the field, flying quickly past her or surging around her, calling out tips and encouragement. Finally out of breath, Nadia landed one last perfect landing and stared up the flock of flyers above her. Mike was leading the others around the field, like a flocking of wheeling birds.

Telling adds texture and rhythm to writing and helps move the story along to the next critical incident or scene, After very active scenes, telling gives the reader a chance to slow down and reflect on the action. Proportion is the key!

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