Occasionally I get to work with writers who feel they need to tell the reader how a character feels about a statement from another, or an event. I usually advise them to “Show, don’t tell.”
Nothing new there... except many seem to have a hard time with the concept. Oh, they GET it. It’s just hard to know how to DO it.
I like to take a tip from songwriters. Some of them can show me an entire story occurring over several years using just three or four short verses. Here’s what I sometimes use as an example. Are you familiar with the George Strait song “I Can Still Make Cheyenne?”
She heard his voice on the other end of the line
She wondered what was wrong this time
She never knew what his calls might bring
With a cowboy like him it could be anything
And she always expected the worst in the back of her mind.
He said, "It's cold out here and I'm all alone,
I didn't make the short go again and I'm coming home.
I know I've been away too long.
I never got a chance to write or call
And I know this rodeo has been hard on us all
But I'll be home soon and honey is there something wrong?"
She said, "Don't bother comin' home.
By the time you get here I'll be long gone.
There's somebody new and he sure ain't no rodeo man."
He said, "I'm sorry it's come down to this.
There's so much about you that I'm gonna miss.
But it's alright baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.
Gotta go now baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.
He left that phone danglin' off the hook
Then slowly turned around and gave it one last look
Then he just walked away
He aimed his truck toward that Wyoming line
With a little luck he could still get there in time
And in that Cheyenne wind he could still hear her say.
If you want to hear it, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nj3O-uK6NGk
The first stanza sets the scene. I figure that in paragraph form it would be written in three sentences, punctuated like this:
Her telephone rang 'bout a quarter to nine. She heard his voice on the other end of the line; she wondered what was wrong this time. She never knew what his calls might bring—
with a cowboy like him it could be anything—and she always expected the worst in the back of her mind.
In those three sentences we know that the two are apart, that his infrequent calls often mean “something’s wrong” since she thinks, “this time.” We learn he’s a cowboy, thus it could be “anything,” and we gather that it’s usually bad since she always expects the worst. In just those three sentences, we are “shown” a lot, but the hook is set. We want to know what “it” is this time. We assume it’s evening, and the tension is palpable.
But look at what we learn from the next three sentences; all dialogue from him:
He said, "It's cold out here and I'm all alone; I didn't make the short go again and I'm coming home. I know I've been away too long. I never got a chance to write or call,
and I know this rodeo has been hard on us all, but I'll be home soon... and Honey, is there something wrong?"
We’re immediately in his head. From his three sentences we learn that he’s down and out. He wants her to know that he’s alone, so he mentions it almost first thing. Why? Out of guilt? Has he been alone all along, or just now? Why does he feel the need to tell her; shouldn’t she assume he’s been alone? Hmmm. Cold and alone? Looking for sympathy. He’s trying to work her. “... didn’t make the short go again.” Translation: he’s about out of money, so he’s heading back to Mama. He’s feeling guilty, and his guilt forces an admission: “I know I’ve been away too long. I never got a chance to write or call. I know this rodeo’s been hard on us all...” Wow. We can see him humble, cowering, almost crawling. He says, “I know...” twice, trying to convince her he can change. And he says, “...hard on us all.” There’s a family here, not just a man and a woman. He’s left her with the kid(s) to do his own thing. He knows who it’s been hardest on.
“But I’ll be home soon...” He’s hopeful, wanting to end on a positive. But when he doesn’t get his hoped-for reprieve (we assume there’s only silence), he tries to sound concerned, “...and Honey” (Oooo, a pet name! THAT oughta make her feel better!) “...is there something wrong?” What could possibly be wrong? I’ve apologized, I’m coming home soon and everything will be fine. We can almost hear him teetering between hope and desperation, figuring out what he needs to say next to get her to come around.
She lowers the boom. No gentle build up, no hope of reprieve. It’s a done deal.
She said, "Don't bother comin' home. By the time you get here, I'll be long gone.
There's somebody new, and he sure ain't no rodeo man." Three short sentences. You can hear the finality and the disgust. She’s made her plans and is on her way out of there tonight, or tomorrow for sure. She sums up his sins and his shortcomings and their incompatibility in her final words, “...he sure ain’t no rodeo man.” Just six words. She knows what he is, and she will have no further part of it. Whatever they had, it’s over. And that’s all she has to say.
But do we need a description of his countenance, mood, attitude, emotions to “see” him? No. His simple response in dialogue without any descriptors paints the clearest of pictures.
He said, "I'm sorry it's come down to this. There's so much about you that I'm gonna miss.
But it's alright baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne. Gotta go now baby, if I hurry I can still make Cheyenne.” You can hear the resignation mixed with relief in those words. He knew! He knew it was over, but they hadn’t admitted it to each other so it didn’t seem real. Now it’s real, and his path forward is clear. There’s no need to argue, plead, cajole or deny.
“I’m sorry... I’ll miss you... But it’s alright, because now I can do what I want to do without so much guilt.”
So few words, almost no adjectives or adverbs, yet we get such a clear picture. That’s showing, not telling.
As for the rest; why didn’t he hang up the phone? Then, he gave it one last look before walking away to his truck. I think it’s because we are being SHOWN that he was torn; he didn’t want to be the one to sever the connection they had once had. He remembered how good it used to be, but his rodeo addiction was too strong and he knew he was giving in to it despite being tugged toward her.
Here you could say we are being told as much as shown:
He left that phone danglin' off the hook,
Then slowly turned around and gave it one last look.
Then he just walked away.
He aimed his truck toward that Wyoming line;
With a little luck he could still get there in time.
And in that Cheyenne wind he could still hear her say...
But I think this is also showing. We are told of his actions, and thoughts, but they give us more insight into his real feelings and emotions which are shown by his actions.
Okay, enough. Clearly this song is a favorite of mine. In those few verses we get enough hints of the man’s life before and after this one phone call that a novel, or a movie screenplay could be written.
I love songs that do that.
For good storylines with some great romantic tension, check out the Love At First Bite Series