Writers beat themselves up. A lot. We’re a sadistic sort, spending hours alone at the keyboard, our families neglected, our gardens overgrown and our dogs unwalked. Not to mention the innocent but salt-in-the-wound comments like, “Can I buy your book yet?” or “Why have so many agents rejected your query?”.
We beat ourselves up in the revision process, especially after our critique partners point out a few “Show Don’t Tell”s in our writing. Everyone is guilty of telling something rather than showing it. For me, I know it’s a shortcut, you know, cutting across a neighbor’s yard on a run rather than making the corner. But there are times when I get feedback and the critiquer mentions the dreaded SDT and for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to fix it. Then, a question occurred to me: the same as a writer uses it for a shortcut, do critiquers use it as a shortcut criticism as well? Do we truly understand SDT?
I think I get the gist of it. Instead of saying that your character is scared, show her fear … heart speeding up, sweat dotting her brow, a tiny shiver coursing through her body. That makes sense and when I re-read passages, I find these little spots when I tell you the emotion instead of showing it. I had a critiquer recently tell me that a whole chapter was telling (for the record, I’m not getting defensive, I’m just trying to figure this out). I think she’s alluding to some of the backstory in that chapter (I asked for specifics but never got any), so how do you show someone backstory rather than tell it?
I write in third-person limited, so one way to show the backstory is to rework it into the form of a thought. But, would that get too messy with all the italics? Or, I could just cut it, but it’s pertinent to the story. Then again, because the backstory happened in the near past chronologically, I could just start the story there … yawn, that would be boring. So, I’ve been beating myself up over the comment for the past several weeks when it makes me wonder if maybe she doesn’t understand SDT.
If we were to write an entire novel showing everything that happened, it would rival The Stand in word count and probably be as slow as molasses to read – right? But then again, if we tell an entire story, it would feel like reading The Sun Also Rises (for the record, Hemingway is a big-time tattle-tale. I know he’s considered one of the greatest novelists ever, but still … he’s reporting a story). There has to be a balance, enough telling to move the story forward but showing to pull the reader in. I like to believe that when we’re in the “zone” or the fictive dream we strike this balance without realizing it.
So, am I way off base? How do you guys handle SDT when it comes up on a critique and you are just stuck as to how to fix it?
Happy Memorial Day! Drink lots of beer, eat lots of BBQ and hug a veteran (maybe not in that order …).