Showing Verus Telling

Thanks to Ned, who transcibed the following section from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King. Last meeting, the issue came up about the difference between showing the audience the scene and telling it to them. This can be the difference between good writing and excellent writing.

What’s wrong with this paragraph:

The conversation was barely begun before I discovered that our host was more than simply a stranger to most of his guests. He was an enigma, a mystery. And this was a crowd that doted on mysteries. In the space of no more than five minutes, I heard several different people put forth their theories–all equally probable or preposterous–as to who and what he was. Each theory was argued with the kind of assurance that can only come from a lack of evidence, and it seemed that, for many of the guests, these arguments were the main reason to attend his parties.

In a sense, of course, there is nothing wrong. The paragraph is grammatically impeccable. It describes the mystery surrounding the party’s host clearly, efficiently, and with a sense of style. The writing is smooth.

Now look at the same passage as it actually appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“I like to come,” Lucille said. “I never care what I do, so I always have a good time. When I was here last, I tore my gown on a chair, and he asked me my name and address–within a week I got a package from Croirier’s with a new evening gown in it.”

“Did you keep it?” asked Jordan.

“Sure I did. I was going to wear it tonight, but it was too big in the bust and had to be altered. It was gas blue with lavender beads. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars.”

“There’s something funny about a fellow that’ll do a thing like that,” said the other girl eagerly. “He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody.”

“Who doesn’t?” I inquired.

“Gatsby. Somebody told me–“

The two girls and Jordan leaned together confidentially.

“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man.”

A thrill passed over all of us. The three Mr. Mumbles bent forward and listened eagerly.   

“I don’t think it’s so much that,” argued Lucille skeptically; “it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.”

One of the men nodded in confirmation.   

“I heard that from a man who knew all about him, grew up with him in Germany,” he assured us positively.   

“Oh, no,” said the first girl, “it couldn’t be that, because he was in the American army during the war.” As our credulity switched back to her, she leaned forward with enthusiasm. “You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.”

What’s the difference between these two examples? To put it simply, it’s a matter of showing and telling. The first paragraph is narrative summary, with no specific setting or characters. We are simply told about the guests’ love of mystery, the weakness of the arguments, the conviction of the arguers. In the second version we actually get to see the breathless partygoers putting forth their theories and can almost taste the eagerness of their audience. The first version is a second-hand report. The second is an immediate scene.

I heartily recommend picking up a copy of the book for futher reading.

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