Here's how the first page of The Key of Kilenya would look if I'd "told" rather than "showed.":
Jacob really liked video games. He also liked basketball. One day, he decided he wanted to stop playing video games for an hour or so and practice basketball instead. He was tending his little sister so he made sure she was okay, then went outside.
His sixteen-year-old brother, Matt, who really liked working on cars, saw him and asked if he could also play. They joked around, as brothers often do. Jacob won the game of basketball. Then they talked about how Jacob was planning on trying out for the team.
A moment later, they were discussing a mutual acquaintance, when Jacob heard a noise coming from the trees near the driveway. Matt said he couldn't hear it. Jacob looked at the trees, wondering if something was there.
If this were the start of my book, my target audience would die from boredom. Teenagers have a great deal less patience than adults when it comes to telling rather than showing, but even adults get frustrated from it. Learning this simple-sounding, yet difficult-to-master concept is key in our writing.
Here's how The Key of Kilenya really starts (used with my permission. Ha ha. :-)):
Jacob tossed his favorite hand-held video game onto his bed, then grabbed his basketball and dashed down the stairs. As he entered the kitchen, he paused, glancing out the window to check on Amberly—still playing in the sandbox out back—then turned and bolted through the front door, eager to take advantage of the last rays of sunlight.
Matt, Jacob’s sixteen-year-old brother, was working in the garage. “Hey, I wanna shoot too,” he said as he popped his head out from under the truck.
“Fine, but I really need this practice. So challenge me.”
“Don’t I always?” Matt said with a laugh.
They played a quick game of one-on-one, with Jacob barreling past Matt and leading the game consistently by fifteen points or more. He ended it with a spectacular three-point shot and bent over panting, hands on knees.
“Yeah, well, I can still beat you at football.” Matt grinned.
Jacob laughed, then tossed the ball to his brother. “Here. You need to practice more.”
“You still trying out tomorrow?”
“‘Course—I have to.”
“Uh-huh.” Matt tucked the ball under his arm and glanced at Jacob. “You know . . . letting Kevin win at something might not be a bad thing. ‘Sides, you could both make it.”
“No, we couldn’t. You know Coach—he’s not going to let two fourteen year olds on varsity.”
A rustle in the trees next to the driveway made Jacob turn his head. It sounded like a large animal or a person. “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Matt was back to shooting hoops again.
Jacob motioned for Matt to stop and took a step closer to the trees, squinting to see better. But the sun had already set, and the brush was dark. “Hey, turn on the light. I think something’s in there.”
It's longer than the first example, but it fulfills many needs. A couple of things I did differently:
I used dialog to move the plot forward, to help my readers get a feel for the characters, and to let us know what's going on in Jacob's mind (basketball, beating Kevin, making the team).
I also used several key words to show what Jacob is doing. "Tossed," "dashed," "eager," etc. He's not moving slowly, and he's not bored. He's excited to get to practicing.
There are several hard fast rules in some markets/genres that don't work in others. For example, The Key of Kilenya starts pretty quickly and jumps into action almost right away. My youth readers love this, but it might not work so well for someone who enjoys a good, relaxed romance.
Telling, instead of showing, doesn't work for any fiction market, with one exception: if the scene would be better with the telling instead of showing. (Who wants to watch the main character sleep all night long, rolling over occasionally, etc.? :-)) In non-fiction, it usually isn't a big deal. (Obviously, if you're writing a manual on how to use computers, you have to "tell." :-))
Take a scene that exemplifies "showing" from a favorite movie, and rewrite it to be an example of a bad scene. Fill it with "telling" things, and remove the awesome. :-)
Then, compare your newly written scene with the original, and tell your readers what you changed and why. Explain the reasons you feel the original scene is a good example of "showing."
If, like me, you have a hard time choosing, here are a few movie ideas:
- Star Wars
- The Princess Bride
- Indiana Jones