Every wannabe author hears “Show, don’t tell” until their ears fall off and fly away rather than listen to another dollop of unexplained advice.
Some writing teachers give examples but most often it goes something like this: “Here, this is an example of showing, not telling” with no explanation of what makes something shown and not told.
I mean, we’re dealing with words on paper. We call ourselves (figuratively) Storytellers. How can we share a story without telling.
Ah…let me provide an example much in the vein of Great Opening Lines – and Why!.
Here’s a paragraph from Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and an explanation how things are shown (I’ll provide explanations of showing using the methodology I use when ala critiquing someone’s work. First, the paragraph:
Portia read from the Book of Luke. She read slowly, tracing the words with her long, limp finger. The room was still. Doctor Copeland sat on the edge of the group, cracking his knuckles, his eyes wandering from one point to another. The room was very small, the air close and stuffy. The four walls were cluttered with calendars and crudely painted advertisements fro magazines. On the mantel there was a vase of red paper roses. The fire on the hearth burned slowly and the wavering light from the oil lamp made shadows on the wall. Portia read with such slow rhythm that the words slept in Doctor Copeland’s ears and he was drowsy. Karl Marx lay sprawled upon the floor beside the children. Hamilton and Highboy dozed. Only the old man seemed to study the meaning of the words.
Now, what is shown element by element:
Portia read from the Book of Luke. The paragraph leads with this statement hence we’re being shown the Judeo-Christian bible’s importance to these people.
She read slowly, She’s not educated.
tracing the words Her education probably stopped with grade school, perhaps not even that far. She has to trace the words with her finger to follow them as she reads them.
with her long, limp finger. She’s uncomfortable in the role of scripture reader. Confidence would be indicated by other, stronger adjectives.
The room was still. Again, the importance of the what’s happening to these people is shown by their being quiet, still, during its reading.
Doctor Copeland sat on the edge of the group, We’re shown he’s not one of them. He’s not involved with them. He’s apart from them.
cracking his knuckles, A sign of nervousness, anxiety. We’re shown his discomfort in this setting.
his eyes wandering from one point to another. Here we’re shown that he’s not paying attention to the reading. Specifically, the people and their reactions to the reading are more important that the reading itself.
The room was very small, We’ve already learned there’s a group of people. Now we’re told they’re in a small room. We’re shown the income level by the fact that a group is confined, constricted.
the air close and stuffy. Further, indications of the discomfort, the emotional tension of the people in the room.
The four walls were cluttered with calendars and crudely painted advertisements from magazines. More indications of the income level.
On the mantel there was a vase of red paper roses. Ditto.
The fire on the hearth burned slowly Another metaphor for the tension in the room.
and the wavering light from the oil lamp made shadows on the wall. Wavering, shadows. Uncomfortable. I might offer “eerie”. Definitely “not niceness.”
Portia read with such slow rhythm The importance of the words.
that the words slept in Doctor Copeland’s ears and he was drowsy. A truly human experience. We’re in a warm, possibly uncomfortably warm, stuffy, claustrophobic place listening to some recitation and feeling ourselves hypnotized into sleep.
Karl Marx lay sprawled upon the floor beside the children. Hamilton and Highboy dozed. Only the old man seemed to study the meaning of the words. Lastly, the focus of the paragraph widens to specific people. The final mention provides transition, allowing the reader to move on.
The last item worth mentioning is recognizing what is repeated using different words; the income level, the education level, Doctor Copeland’s misanthropy to the others in the room, …