Writing Q&A 24: Showing vs. telling; phone dialogue
Published: June 5, 2007
|When you're writing about a character's thoughts, aren't you always "telling" instead of "showing"?|
The distinction between showing and telling is important. Telling about a character's vanity, for example, isn't nearly as precise as showing it in her starched skirt and her meticulously curled bangs. Describing a boss as angry doesn't capture his nature as effectively as showing him holler at his assistant for bringing coffee that is too hot. Showing allows the reader to make conclusions and draw interpretations from concrete details. (For an even more detailed explanation of the difference between showing and telling, check out Writing Q&A 2.)
Thoughts cannot be observed or experienced by the senses, which can make showing them seem complicated--or downright impossible. But this works on the same basic principal as showing action, dialogue or appearance. If you tell the reader about the thought, that's "telling," if you let the thought unfold for the reader, that's "showing."
Take this example from Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter," a story in which Shukumar and his wife Shoba have grown distant since a miscarriage:
He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. He thought of how long it had been since she looked into his eyes and smiled, or whispered his name on those rare occasions they still reached for each other's bodies before sleeping.
This glimpse into Shukumar's thoughts reveals the nature of their distance. It is certainly more dynamic than a line that tells: "He thought they had grown apart and didn't have the time or intimacy they once had." And it's more authentic, as well. We don't think in summaries or conclusions, so much as images, memories, and impressions.
A character's imagination can also be a vivid way to show thought. F. Scott Fitzgerald does this in The Great Gatsby when Nick, the first person narrator, imagines Gatsby and Daisy's first kiss:
One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. ... So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her.
Nick wasn't present for the kiss, but he's heard Gatsby talk about it. Nick imagines it in such vivid detail that the reader can see the magic of the moment.
|What is the best way to write a telephone conversation when only one side is heard?|
One approach is to lay out the dialogue that can be heard and use narrative to help create the pauses that occur when that character is listening:
"I'm not sure." My mother sat at the kitchen table. She held the phone to her ear with her shoulder and bit at the cuticle on her thumb. "Quentin wouldn't lie," she said, standing up to pace the narrow kitchen. "He's not that kind of boy."
This approach is particularly useful in a circumstance where the words spoken during the conversation are important. Quentin might be eavesdropping to find out just how much trouble he'll be in when his mother gets off the phone. There may, however, be situations where the exact dialogue of the exchange isn't as important as the mood of the moment. In such cases, you might focus more on action:
I turned out the light on my night table and still, Linda chatted, the cordless jammed to her ear. She laughed that high-pitched giggle she uses only when she's around other women. I put my pillow over my head.
The emphasis here is on the narrator's annoyance at the noise Linda is making when he's trying to sleep, and at the act he feels Linda is putting on for her listener. What Linda says isn't nearly as important as how she says it, or how the narrator reacts to it.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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