I know. I know. I know. You’ve heard “show don’t tell” until you could scream. Every class, every writing coach, agent, editor, publisher says this at every opportunity. But what does it really mean?
Here’s an example. (Keep in mind I know NOTHING about street talk. I’m no Elmore Leonard, so I’m not going for edgy authenticity here—just showing versus telling.)
Jim Smith, a forty-two year old drug addict, lives in a nasty shoebox apartment. He’s lost everything—his job, his wife, and his dream house. He can’t kick the habit. He’s tried every rehab east of the Mississippi and nothing works. He wants to quit, but he can’t. He does well for a week or two after rehab, but then it’s back to the same old routine. He calls the same friends, stands on the same corner trying to score. He knows the drugs are going to kill him, but he’s powerless.
The above paragraph is classic TELLING. There’s no dialogue, no character description—simply dry narrative. I’m spoon feeding you everything about this dude. It’s not active, interesting or engaging.
Jim hung up the phone three times before he let the call go through. His hand was shaking when he dialed the fourth time. He took a deep breath and crossed his fingers when he heard the tinny ring.
“Please answer. Please, please,” he said. He hated the desperate whine in his voice.
“Yo,” said the familiar voice.
“It’s me,” he whispered. “I need. . .”
The man on the other end of the line said, “I know what you need, dude. Out of rehab again? You know it’s for quitters, right?” There wasn’t a trace of humor in the man’s gritty laugh. “You know the place.” He disconnected.
Jim brushed the fast food wrappers from the coffee table. He scoured its scratched surface for change. Finding only two quarters and a penny, he pushed back the pounding in his head and rose from the tattered sofa. He stumbled down the hall. The pulsing pain in his head was like a living thing. He just needed a little. Just one fix. Then he could think. He could get his thoughts together. And then no more. Ever.
“&*^%,” he said to the face in the bathroom mirror. His eyes were bloodshot and rimmed with dark purple circles. “I’ve got to stop this *&^# I look like I’m sixty years old.” He splashed some cold water on his face and dried it with a stained towel. He found the old cigar box under the counter. Instead of the three or four hundred in emergency funds it used to hold, he found only a tattered five some one had taped back together.
He had no choice. He had to call her. There was no one else. If the pain in his head got any worse, it might explode.
“Marcia,” he paused, waiting for her to hang up on him. When she didn’t, he continued, “I need a little cash to get me to the next paycheck. I hate to ask, but I’m desperate.”
“The next paycheck, huh?” The bitterness in her voice made him shiver. “I wasn’t aware you were expecting a paycheck,” she spat. “I thought you gave those up a long time ago.”
“Marcia, please. I did really well in rehab. I’m not starting again. It’s just this headache. I can’t seem to shake it and I have to get my thoughts together. It’s just this once.”
“Yeah, Jim. It’s always just this once. That’s what you told your boss, that’s what you told the kids. And even I was stupid enough to believe it the first fifty times I heard it. Sorry, Jim. You wont’ be getting a dime out of me.”
In the passage above, I tried to use dialogue, character description, and setting to tell you more about what was happening. I wanted you to see the crummy apartment, feel his desperation, connect in someway to him or the wife, even the dealer. I used more several things to move the story along: dialogue, description and backstory hints.
(Keep in mind, this blog was written in less than half an hour, so this I’m not saying this work is ready for an agent, editor, etc. It’s not. I’m in no way saying it’s great, or even good writing. It’s just a brief exercise to try and illustrate the difference between showing and telling.)