After writing my first novel, “Tell Me,” I sent it to a beta reader. Well to make a short story long, she sent it back telling me that there was too much telling and not enough showing. I’m really confused about that. I know I put in a lot of description that I thought was showing, such as:
“ Dennis [my protagonist] was 6 feet 4 inches tall, built solidly, and had brown hair and eyes. He spoke in a bass voice and tended to walk very fast.”
Now isn’t that showing?”
Dear Ms. Show-don’t-tell,
First of all, the line you took from your novel to illustrate your idea of descriptive “showing” is description, all right, but very boring description and will certainly cause a break in your storytelling, which is never a good idea. Your story should flow smoothly, with any descriptions you use being part of the “show.”
Let’s take your example. Here’s a better, more “showy” way of writing it:
“Dennis never walked anywhere: he careened through crowds like a runaway locomotive. As his feet pounded the ground, the local seismographs registered at least a 5.9 on the Richter Scale. When he spoke, he sounded more like a foghorn announcing his presence to ships passing in the night. Behind his unassuming features was a brain sharp enough to cut a cat’s whisker and observant enough to detect a skin mite crossing a person’s nose, as it was doing right now.” [This last sentence should then morph into an astute observation that he was in the process of making.]
Sounds like an interesting character, right? I used not only more visually-appealing description, but also exaggeration, which is an excellent device in characterization as well. When used in moderation, of course. If you use too much exaggeration, your protagonist may sound too cartoon-like.
Finally, you don’t want your protagonist(s) coming across as ordinary people. That’s not what readers are looking for when they buy a book. The only exception to that rule is to put, early on in your novel, your protagonists in extraordinary situations, forcing them to show their mettle, so to speak.
I have to run now; my puddy-cat serial is about to come on. Puddy is so mangy that a swarm of gnats always seems to hang over her, and her tail is perpetually at half mast because of an old break in the middle. But she can cross open ground faster than an Olympic sprinter and scratch the eyes out of any dog alive. She’s my hero, well heroine actually.