By Brenda Bensch
All attentive writers have heard “show, don’t tell” over and over again. I’m here to tell you that’s true most of the time, but not necessarily all of the time.
I remember reading a book by Thomas Wolfe years ago. As I recall he went for three full pages describing a door-knob. Three Full Pages! Now, he’s an excellent writer, but at that point, he’d lost me . . . and I’d lost interest.
Yes, you can “show” a person unlocking the car door, opening it, sliding into the driver’s seat, buckling up, putting the key into the ignition, cranking the engine, putting the car in reverse, backing down the driveway — but only after checking carefully that there are no children, pedestrians, on-coming traffic in his way . . . etc., etc., etc. I’m telling you, you can tell me he jumped in the car and drove off.
The minutiae of ordinary actions can be told quickly and easily. If they mean something important then, by all means, give me a chance to see what is happening. In other words, show me.
I did hear one writer give an apt description of how to go about “showing.” Write what you would see if you were watching a movie or TV show. I prefer to think “movie” because of the wide screen, big details. Isn’t that the “picture-perfect” way to get the description in along with obeying the rule “show, don’t tell”?
Generally speaking, I think that would throw me into present tense. And present tense is always more immediate. Not sure I’d like to write a whole novel in present tense, but if I want to evoke immediacy, and I want to be sure I’m “showing,” not “telling,” that seems like a good way to go!
Describe the good guy facing the bad guy, guns ready to be drawn. The sweat running down the side of the hero’s face, the splat it makes in the dust by his feet. The smirk running across the bad guy’s lips. The bar girl reaching out and grabbing her friend’s arm in a moment of tension. And so on and so forth. You’ve all seen the scene, I’m sure.
Now go write what you see! And hear. And touch. And taste. And smell.