Monday, January 5, 2009

Write With Action

When I see writers ask agents questions like “Is it ok to introduce a passage of showing with a passage of telling?” it makes me think that they are missing the point. While show, don’t tell can be very good advice, it is useless if people don’t understand how to apply it.

Before a foot race, there may be a lot of talk among those who are running. Hopefully it is good natured, but one runner might tell another runner, “I could run backwards and still beat you.” That is telling. It is just talk unless the runner actually runs the race backwards and wins. In that case it is showing.

Character is revealed by action. You could tell your children that you love them every day, but the truth isn’t revealed until we see whether you are the type of parent who fixes your kids’ lunches or who slaps them in the face every day when they get home from school because you know they must have done something to deserve it.

The same is true of fictional characters. Their nature is revealed through the actions they take. Do they say one thing to one person and something else to another? Do they tithe when they go to church or do they just drop a twenty in the plate so the people around them won’t think badly of them?

Now we could say something like “every week he meticulously calculated his income and wrote a check for ten percent of it” and we would still be showing, even though we don’t have a full fledged scene with him doing that very thing. On the other hand, we could say, “everyone knew he was a tither” and we are telling rather than showing. The difference? Action. When you write with action verbs you are showing. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider whether to expand a short sentence into a lengthy scene, but action and showing go hand in hand.

No, we can’t have action all the time. Sometimes we much bring things to a halt and describe how things are in at this moment, but we don’t want to stop for very long. We want our characters doing something, even if it is sticking a pencil over his ear, because what the character does is what reveals who is truly is.