Show and Tell on a Dark and Stormy Night

There’s a reason we hear “show, don’t tell” all the way back to elementary school. It’s sound advice. It’s the bedrock of a good story. It’s not just a good idea—it’s the law.

Despite being repeated forever, the advice isn’t entirely clear, especially to early writers. In fact, the advice is very “telly” and not at all “showy.”

Let’s see if I can clarify the difference between the two.

 

Telling:

It was a dark and stormy night. Mortimer drove his yellow and green Ford pickup truck up the winding road toward the haunted castle. He was dressed in jeans and a red striped shirt with three buttons.

He saw lightning flash in a jagged spike that hit the topmost turret built of ghostly gray stones. The road was muddy and filled with potholes, making it difficult to drive. A second flash of lightning struck the road in front of him, revealing the pale form of a woman dressed in a white gown with billowing sleeves and a bodice laced up the front. Her golden hair was dry and didn’t flutter in the wind.

She lifted her arm and pointed at Mortimer. The woman’s face contorted and aged, and she gave a high pitched wail that terrified Mortimer.

He lost control of the truck and ran off the road into the darkness below.

 

Showing:

Mortimer squinted through the windshield, trying to make out the dark road through the rain and sleet speckling the glass. The cracked steering wheel bit at his fingers, but he didn’t dare ease his grip. Twice he’d lost traction in the mud, and the truck had nearly gone over the side of the mountain.

Lightning hit the turret of the castle up ahead, and Mortimer winced. He dared to take one hand off the wheel long enough to wipe a trickle of sweat from his temple. The fisherman in the village had told him it was haunted, but that was ridiculous. Wasn’t it? He wiped away another bead of sweat and doubled his grip on the wheel.

A second bolt of lightning struck, and the road before him lit up like a flare. Mortimer swallowed a yelp of panic. A woman stood out in the cold and wet. Her hair and white dress were still and dry in the storm. Mortimer rubbed his eyes with a white-knuckled fist. It had to be an illusion.

As he crept the truck closer, Mortimer’s headlights illuminated the woman. His hair rose from his arms and scalp. The woman lifted her arm and pointed, and her face morphed into a haggish, ugly scowl. She opened her mouth and the scream she let out shot cold fear through his spine.

Mortimer swerved to avoid coming close to her. The truck’s bald tires slid across the mud and hit a pothole. In panic, Mortimer spun the wheel into the slide, but it did no good. The vehicle jounced against the embankment, slamming Mortimer’s head into the driver’s window, and the truck went over the side into the ravine.

As he fell, the woman’s wail followed him, drowning out the screams from his own throat.

So, what’s the difference? One is certainly longer, though that happened by accident. The change has more to do with focusing on the main character. He doesn’t care about the color of his truck. He’s not thinking about that. He doesn’t have reason to think about what he’s wearing, either. And the billowing sleeves and laced bodice of the woman in white aren’t likely to cross his mind unless he happens to be a clothes designer.

The details are confined to what he sees and what he’s experiencing. It’s not enough to tell us that Mortimer is afraid. Show us the sweat trickling from his hairline. Don’t tell us the road is slick. Show us Mortimer white-knuckling the steering wheel while he fights to keep control of the vehicle.

There will always be some telling in everything. But where you can, show it.

Is it clearer, or did I muddy it up even worse?

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.

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