Me, Wally Lamb & the Moment It All Became Clear: Show vs. Tell

Don

You ever have one of those moments when you just ‘get’ something? When you fully understand something that was previously a novelty to you? Some people call it an epiphany. Oprah calls it an ‘A-ha moment’.  I had one while reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb.

Both my editor and fellow writer/beta reader Ann Fields gave me this advice as part of their feedback for my first novel: show the story, don’t just tell it. I struggled to understand exactly what this meant. The phrase ‘show vs tell’ is thrown around in the writing community all willy-nilly and it’s pretty difficult to explain what it actually means.

She’s Come Undone is the best example of mastering show vs tell that I’ve ever read. The book somehow conveys that Delores is an obese, largely ignored, sexually repressed, sarcastically humorous, intelligent, scared girl. The writer doesn’t tell us this. He shows us by creating scenes in which other characters react to Delores, by giving us insight into her thought processes, by sharing her responses to outside stimuli.

She's come undon

Lamb’s style is dramatic, sensual and visual. We’re not told that Delores is cynical and prone to highlighting other people’s flaws. We’re shown it in the way she notices someone’s rounded belly, stained teeth or oily skin. Delores doesn’t simply take a swim with her father. We’re right there with her feeling the warmth of the pool, seeing the hazy colors of life underwater, experiencing a little girl’s crush for her father.

Reading She’s Come Undone made something click in the part of my brain that couldn’t quite grasp the difference between telling a story and showing a story unfolding. I think it’s important to have a balance between the two, but practicing the skill of showing will make me a much better writer.

The biggest takeaway for me is to not write down to readers. Trust their intelligence enough to believe that they’ll get the point. Relinquish enough creative control to leave room for various interpretations. Because really, that’s what art is.

I’d love to read more books by authors that have mastered the show vs tell balancing act, so if you have suggestions, please don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments below. Special thanks to Kate Loveton for suggesting She’s Come Undone to me! I haven’t finished it yet, so no spoilers please. 🙂

As a writer, have you struggled with show vs. tell? How did you work through it? Here’s a great article on the show vs. tell debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!

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13 thoughts on “Me, Wally Lamb & the Moment It All Became Clear: Show vs. Tell

  1. I think the struggle lies in show vs tell is with the ability to write as vividly as possible without too much verbiage. As an author I let the reader to get the picture I’m painting using words, but still give that same reader enough room to visualize to the of their own understanding. It’s hard because you want everyone to get EXACTLY the gist of what you wrote, but once you give it to the world it’s OPEN for interpretation. Rule of thumb, less is more when it comes to writing, but making sure the less is being used in the best way possible will help any writer with the struggle of show vs tell.

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    • I hear you! And as someone who wrote a book that is waaaay long by modern standards it’s easier said than done. Writing tighter is something I want to work on improving. It’s a balancing act.

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  2. When I wrote Born at Dawn I encountered the same situation while editing and I just posted a note on the wall over my computer, “Where am I telling and not showing?” Whenever I write now I ask that question during revisions. I don’t worry about it on the first go round. The first go round I just write. What has been helpful for me is the Emotion Thesaurus as well.

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    • Posting a reminder note is a great idea. And I’ve never heard of the Emotional Thesaurus *blushing with writer shame* but it sounds like it would be helpful.

      On the first round of writing I used to be able to just go, but now I find myself self editing along the way even when I’m not consciously trying to. It can be annoying, and I’m working on learning how to shut that part of my brain down on the first draft. I’m already a slow writer. I don’t need anything else slowing me down!

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  3. For me, it’s all about voice or plot. If a story has a wonderful narrative voice, I’ll forgive just about anything. And if the plot is good, same thing. It has to be reaaalllly bad for me to get peeved. When I’m writing I always think about this illustration:

    She was mad (telling)
    She threw the remote control at his head (showing)

    But it always comes down to what I’m trying to do in a particular scene. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book!

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    • The more I learn about writing, the more selective I’m becoming with my reading. You know I’ll download anything that’s free, but I’m finding it harder and harder to get through sub par books! I guess it’s because my recreational time has dwindled.

      I love your go-to example of show vs. tell! I hope he ducked, lol. 🙂

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  4. I love his work. And inspiring that you are able to both enjoy a story and observe the workings- I find I have to do one or the other to stay in both. I am currently reading this very helpful book called Wired For Story — the author- Lisa Cron, does a wonderful job of clearly articulating what beyond the story itself compels a reader to keep reading. The only downside (upside too, I guess) is that I am now aware of how much more work I need to do on my book.

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    • The more I learn, the more I can’t help noticing when I’m reading and writing. I have to admit that my analyzing can sometimes take away from the joy of reading. But it’s really helpful for my own writing. Keep working on your book, but I’ll tell you what finally made me let mine go after months of picking at it: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I’m terrified to read my own book because I know all I’ll see are areas where I could improve!

      And I’ll have to remember to check out Wired for Story. It sounds intriguing!

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    • I actually love this crazy book! I think it’s one that you either love or hate, judging by the reviews. It tackles so many heavy issues, but it still has humor. And Delores narrative voice? She’s real to me, flaws and all. Thanks for the recommendation Kate! 🙂

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