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 …).



About Kimberly Packard

Kimberly Packard is an award-winning author of women’s fiction. She began visiting her spot on the shelves at libraries and bookstores at a young age, gazing between the Os and the Qs. Kimberly received a degree in journalism from the University of North Texas, and has worked in public relations and communications for nearly 20 years. When she isn’t writing, she can be found rollerblading, doing a poor imitation of yoga or curled up with a book. She resides in North Texas with her husband Colby, Oliver the cat and a 75-pound lap dog named Charlie. Her debut novel, Phoenix, was awarded as Best General Fiction of 2013 by the Texas Association of Authors.
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4 Responses to Show-Off:Tattle-Tale

  1. taureanw says:

    Great point!

    It is so much easier as a writer to simply tell what is going on or what someone is feeling, but it makes it less engaging for the reader. I am currently editing more WIP and I will definitely keep this in mind!!

    • I get the purpose – if you show the reader feels a deeper connection with the story and characters. I think it’s a matter of striking a balance … and it probably also depends on genre now that I think about it. A literary fiction piece might be able to get away with much more showing than a fast-paced thriller.

  2. Frank Bishop says:

    Well there is truth in the showing, but not telling. Because I am a devious dastardly bastard, I tell things to throw the reader off of little hints I drop on things. This might be a bit unfair, but I like to think it brings an element of, WHOA I DID NOT SEE THAT COMING, that I sometimes enjoy hearing.

    I agree, it is rather muddled depending on the genre. Sometimes you write yourself into a box and are left with few choices, start the scene over again or push forward, and depending where you are in terms of progress, it is easier to revise.

    I for one have a strong distaste for showing during action scenes, to me it is more fluid to tell. Then again, I don’t like my imagination’s mind being held the entire time.

    • Thanks Frank! You’re right, there is a time and place for both. Maybe it’s the “critique du jour.” I try to look for it when I read books, but I usually get so wrapped up in the story that I forget to notice. So, maybe we spend more time on it than the readers do.

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