Show, don’t tell! (Or “The attack of the dialogue from hell…”)

Dialogue from hell:
“Oh, Sam, I haven’t seen you since we were children. It’s been 30 years! Where have you been?”

“Remember that day in school, Pete, when the English teacher we had for three years, Mrs. Mooney, accidentally flung the pointer across the room and it embedded itself into my brain, and you all watched in horrid fascination as I fell to the floor and began to twitch like a frog getting electric shocks?”

“Yes, Sam, I remember the expression on your face as you bit your tongue.”

“That was horrible, Pete, but not as horrible as when Mrs. Mooney tried to give me CPR. My God, that lady’s breath was high-octane.

“You’re right, Sam. Do you remember how she would pull that little flask out of her desk and take a quick gulp when she though nobody was looking?”

“Oh yes, Pete. Her little whiskey flask. I had forgotten that.”

Have you ever read dialogue like the brief, painful exchange above? It reads like two characters on a low-budget TV show. On TV they can’t help talking this way — the producers simply don’t have the budget to show the pointer flying across the room and embedding itself deeply into Pete’s brain. All they can afford is a scene of two talking heads blathering on and on about it. However, if you write dialogue like this regularly, you’re either in the wrong business, or you’re on some mind-numbing chemicals.

Here is a cardinal rule of fiction writing: Show, don’t tell. This applies to novels, short stories, screenplays — in fact, it applies to most everything.

How can you improve the mess above? Try something like this:

“Shut up,” Mrs. Mooney shrieked. “You know I detest talking in my class!” Emphasizing the word “detest,” Mrs. Mooney swung her pointer like a conductor’s baton. To her horror, the pointer left her hand, shot across the room like a spitball on steroids, and embedded itself an inch into the frontal lobe of Sam’s brain. Sam crumpled to the floor and began twitching violently, like a frog being electrocuted in a science lab experiment. Mrs. Mooney furtively scanned the room; all eyes were glued to poor Sam’s floor ballet. Leaning down over her desk, she slid open the drawer, found her secret flask, and took a deep gulp of whatever cheap bourbon she kept in there. Then a light went on in her eyes, and she raced across the room, dropped down beside Sam, and began administering CPR.

Okay, I agree. The paragraph above won’t win the Pulitzer for fiction, but it’s quite an improvement over the cheesy dialogue at the top of this post.  Don’t tell your readers that someone is angry. Show him banging his fist on the desk. Don’t say someone is embarrassed. Show her face reddening and her posture becoming crouched and defensive. Always show, don’t tell.

Here’s an exercise to try: Perhaps you have written a short story or a chapter from a novel. If not,  take the time to write a few pages about something that happened to you. Then read it carefully. If you find yourself telling, rewrite those parts so you are showing. For example, if you said, “I got angry,” cross that out with your editing pen and replace it with, “I threw the book halfway across the room, just barely missing Brian’s head.”

Next time we’ll take a look at an amazing market finder for writers. Until then, may your words sprout wings and take flight, lifting you far above the troubles of the world.

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