“Show, don’t tell,” is an admonishment we hear all the time, but what does it really mean? I recently read a book that was 85% telling. It read like a giant synopsis. It made me think of those cute little old lady hamburger ads—Where’s the beef? For those experienced writers who read this, my apologies for something considered to be basic; however, I remember being told this old axiom and not being totally sure what it meant.
What I would like to do is provide three samples of a book’s evolutionary process to give an inkling of what showing vs telling may be about. I will present:
- A brief synopsis or outline statement
- A sample of what that looks like in a telling style
- A sample of how it might be fleshed out with showing
Ronnie and bomb sniffing beagles Heckle and Jeckle confirm an IED and a deadly booby trap.
Ronnie Gallatin and her two bomb sniffing beagles arrived at the scene of a suspected IED. Police Chief James didn’t recognize Ronnie and questioned who she was and why she was there. Ronnie explained she had been at the hospital during the introductory meeting. Once that was all cleared up, Ronnie began working her dogs and quickly ascertained there were explosives present in the parked car. Fortunately, Jeckle also found a booby trapped grenade under a tire, thereby averting a horrendous disaster. Chief James was most appreciative of Ronnie and her dogs.
Ronnie jumped out of the truck and ran around to the kennels in the rear of its bed. The young hunting dogs sensed the excitement in the air and began baying as loud as their small bodies would allow. Ronnie let each out and attached working leashes to their harnesses. At that, they both settled down and began straining ahead, anxious to begin work.
Ronnie saw James and immediately approached her.
“What have we got, Chief?”
“And you are?”
“Oops, sorry,” as she flashed her ID, “I’m INCIDA dog handler Ronnie Galletin. I’ve brought our explosive sniffing dogs to check out the vehicle before anyone attempts to touch it. If there is a bomb on board, they will detect it. If not, they will so indicate it.”
“And who sent you here?”
“The Sheriff has authorized our use within Leavenworth County, further supported by the KBI. I’m sorry I wasn’t at the meeting yesterday, or they would have introduced us.”
James thawed a little. The fact that Ronnie was a woman and acted professionally helped a lot. “OK, let’s see how they do.
Ronnie approached the junker car and held onto the dogs’ leashes. Once near the car, she commanded them to sit and stay to focus them. The female, Heckle, grew especially tense in anticipation of working and had to be soothed. Ronnie knelt between them and unsnapped their collars, giving the command to find. Both beagles trotted toward the car and immediately began to bugle as only beagles can.
“Good girl Heckle! Good boy, Jeckle! Come back to momma now.”
She snapped them back on, rewarded them by giving them their toys to nuzzle, and turned to Chief James. “IED for sure, Ma’am. Call out the bomb squad.”
As Ronnie began to turn to the right, Jeckle suddenly stiffened. He lunged against his lead toward the rear wheel of the car. “What’cha got there, boy?” Jeckle continued to pull, and now Heckle was too. Ronnie knelt down and stared under the car. Her neck hairs rose when she saw a hand grenade wedged against the front side of driver’s rear wheel. “Oh good God, Ma’am. There’s a grenade booby trap wedged under the rear wheel. Any movement of the car or an accidental kick will dislodge it, blowing and initializing the car bomb. Little Heckle definitely earned his kibble tonight.”
James couldn’t help herself. She knelt down beside Ronnie and hugged those little beagles to her breast. “Thank you; thank you; thank you; you cute little rabbit dogs. You saved some lives today!” She then stood up and pulled Ronnie up into an embrace. “I can’t thank you enough, Ms Gallatin!”
Ronnie hugged her back. “It’s just Ronnie, Ma’am. I’m just glad Jeckle caught it. That was a tragedy ready to happen.”
OK, so what’s different between the telling and showing? Dialog, action, emotions, back story, and a lot more detail. Showing takes the information in the telling and expands it into an interesting story with dramatic elements. Again, I know this is pretty basic, yet you’d be surprised how often I see problems in this area. Every now and then I get rushed or lazy in my own writing. When I read back over a section, I’ll realize I need to show more to make that section more interesting and real. Just remember to not get carried away with too much showing detail. Strive for just the right balance.