Don't Talk to Me -- Show Me!

     "Don't talk of love! Show me!" sings Eliza in My Fair Lady. That comment could come from readers too.

Dialogue is often a challenge for writers, yet it is so important, whether you're writing a modern or historical novel, or a non-fiction anecdote. As the writer, you want your reader to see your characters as people living in a real world. One way to do this is to show the reader the scene, not just tell them the spoken words.

Next time someone tells you a story, concentrate on your own reactions. You'll find you don't just hear the words. You see the expression on the speaker's face, and you're aware of others in the room. You notice what they do with their hands and whether they look at you directly or avoid your eyes. In fact, if the story goes on too long, you may have difficulty even concentrating on what they're trying to tell you.

Don't just give your reader the words. Give them enough information that they can picture the entire scene, not just the speaker.

Let's say I want to show my reader that the neighbour across the road from my main character is an interfering old lady. I decide to use dialogue to make the point. I could say,

The old lady from across the road came in the door and said, "I just popped across to bring you this little pot of jam. I was given two, and you know, I hardly ever use it. I also wondered if you were aware that the children are playing outside in their school uniforms? They are climbing the mulberry trees in the front yard and they could tear them. Besides, those white shirts must be so difficult to get clean. And what a cute little boy this is."

How boring is that? You know what she said, but that's about all. How about . . .


     Marsha wiped the last of the egg yolk from Bobby's face and hands as her neighbour walked uninvited through the front door and into the room. "Hello, Mrs. Cartwright. What can I do for you?"

     "I just popped across to bring you this little pot of jam. I was given two, and you know, with living alone, I hardly ever use it. I'm sure with all your children you use lots of jam for sandwiches and things." The old lady glanced around the untidy room with a look of disapproval written across her lined face.
     "Thank you so much. Please put it down on the table." Marsha handed the little boy a plastic cup of milk and waited for the real reason for her neighbour's visit. She had only lived across the road from Mrs. Millicent Cartwright for just over a month, but she knew there was a better reason than a pot of jam.

     “Dear—I wondered if you were aware that the children are playing outside in their school uniforms? They are climbing the mulberry trees again, and I thought you should know." Marsha rescued the cup of milk from being turned upside down and placed it on the nearby counter. "Those white shirts must be so difficult to get clean," the old lady continued. She reached out and patted Bobby on the cheek, then pulled her hand back in alarm as the toddler swung his head round and opened his mouth.

     "Oh, my goodness! Does he bite?"

     "No, Mrs. Cartwright. Not usually." Not unless silly old ladies pat him on the cheek when he's stuck in his high chair and can't escape. "Thank you for being concerned about the children's shirts." Marsha lifted the little boy from his high-chair. "I told the twins they could pick me some mulberries before going for a bath. Their shirts are already dirty."

     She hid a smile as the old lady stepped back hastily to avoid Bobby as he raced past her on unsteady legs to see what the twins were up to.

Better? Hopefully you not only know what the old lady had to say, but you have learned more about her and her relations with the family across the road.

So next time you want to share some dialogue with your reader, "Don't talk of whatever--show them!"

OVER TO YOU: What action in the above excerpt drew you into the story the most? Please respond in the comment section.

SHIRLEY CORDER  lives a short walk from the seaside in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with her husband Rob. She is author of Strength Renewed: Meditations for your Journey through Breast Cancer. Shirley is also contributing author to ten other books and has published hundreds of devotions and articles internationally. 

Visit Shirley on her website to inspire and encourage writers, or on Rise and Soar, her website for encouraging those on the cancer journey. 

Follow her on Twitter or "like" her Author's page on Facebook, and now that she has a GPS, she may even follow you back.


Judith Robl said...

You had me with the first line. I love "My Fair Lady" and can sing most of the songs at the drop of a hat. Not that you would want me to. I remember the melodies. I simply can't carry them.

Great illustration for writers. The before and after help so much more than the old refrain "show, don't tell".

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks for your comment Judith. Yes, I love this film too.

Heidiwriter said...

Excellent example. I'm a big proponent of "show!"

Karen Cioffi said...

Great post, Shirley. Dialog with bits of description is a good way to show and not tell. And, excellent first two sentences to the post!

Magdalena Ball said...

Great example, Shirley - I really like the way you make that old adage concrete and show, rather than just tell us!

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

THe best way to teach how to show instead of to show. You did an excellent job!

Debbie A Byrne said...

Great post! I passed this along to one of my writing buddies who is working on dialogue. I also have been working on dialogue.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Heidi. I find it fun to write this way too.

Shirley Corder said...

LOL Thanks for the comment re the first two sentences! I couldn't figure out how to start initially. Glad it worked.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Magdalena. I love these characters. They live for me, so it was easy to show them at work!

Shirley Corder said...

Glad it worked Mary Jo! Thanks for the comment.

Shirley Corder said...

Thanks Debbie. Yes, it definitely takes more words to write dialogue but it's so much more effective isn't it?

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