Tag Archive | show

Is the Narrative Voice Dying Out?

title1I’m teaching my Show and Tell workshop in October and that got me thinking about the narrative voice. The two things that always happen with this workshop is that everyone comes in wanting to know more about “showing”–as in they’ve been beaten over the head in various critique comments to show more. The other thing is that I try to convince folks that good narrative is as important as good showing–each has it’s place in fiction, but I do worry that writers are being pushed into too much showing. What–is such a thing possible?

My answer is yes, and here’s why showing can be a bad thing at times.

1-Narrative can set a reader into the world. Too often I’m reading manuscripts and the description is more than sparse–it’s nonexistent. As a reader I want to know where I am, when I am and I want to experience the world. This means weaving in details to make the world vivid–sights, sounds, textures, tastes, smells. This can be done through a character’s viewpoint to show the world, but sometimes narrative can be a lot more effective to set your scene and put a reader into the story.

2-Narrative can weave in backstory. Yes, you can clog the opening of any story with too much–but too little can be just as bad. It’s like throwing someone into the deep end of the pool–the reader is left struggling. Too little information and the story becomes confusing and right after that the reader is going to check out of the fiction. Telling the reader a few things can keep the reader interested, particularly if you bait the hook with interesting bits of background so the reader wants to know more. And narrative can keep the backstory clean and crisp, so there’s no clunky exposition in dialogue.

3-Narrative can help introduce new characters. Again, this can be overdone, but a few bits of telling can help a reader “see” a person and helps keep the cast of characters sorted out. This can be done in a character’s viewpoint, but a lot of times a little bit of telling the reader something important or “telling” about the character is a better way to keep the pace moving and keep the reader involved.

4-Narrative can help the writer’s voice stand out. This is perhaps the most important part of the narrative voice–of telling. Beautiful writing is a wonderful thing. Again, this can be overdone and the writing becomes “writerly” or so self-conscious it throws the reader out of the story. You don’t want to step all over the story–and your characters–to leave thumbprints, but a lovely turn of phrase here and there is not a bad thing. It adds to the overall experience.

Notice with all of this, the important elements of telling are to not overdo it, and to use the narrative voice to help the reader into the story. I like to say it’s about showing more in scenes that need emotion, and telling better between scenes. The narrative voice has it’s place in fiction–I just hope writers will continue to learn how to use it better.


Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.



LiftWriters, if you do not want to look like a newbie who is just starting to learn your craft, there are a few things to avoid. Things that mark you as inexperienced—meaning your story is going to clunk. These things get between the reader and the story. These are things you need to fix, and that means you need to go hunting for these weak points.

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show emotion on the page.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blond hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

You want to know exactly why your character reacts or acts—you need to know that character’s motivations, and those motivations need to be based in deep, core personality issues. Your character must react in character.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

Show more, tell less. Know your characters better than you know yourself and put that into the story. Get out of the way and let the characters carry the story. Everything else an editor can fix.

Show and Tell

This August, I’m doing the “Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop” online for the FFnP Chapter of RWA, so it seemed time for blatant promotion and to post tips for this.  The “show don’t tell” advice I understand but it sometimes chaps my hide a bit since telling can be a way useful tool for a writer and if folks are struggling to show everything they don’t get around to leaning how to do strong narrative.  That’s too useful a tool for a writer to ignore.  The way I figure it, these are two things you need in your toolbox–same way a carpenter needs both a screwdriver and a hammer.  Hammers really are great for pounding things home–but there are times you need the finesse of a screwdriver to just tighten things up.  Means a writer needs to learn how to both show and tell–and you need to learn when each of these works best for your story. 

Now, about those tips….


  • means convening the character in action and words.
  • takes more words because the goal is to create a picture and feeling in the reader’s mind with only words.
  • takes vivid descriptions that reveal the characters emotions to the reader.
  • requires good visualization by the writer.
  • is strongest when you use as many of the five senses as possible: smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing.
  • is the continual search for how to reveal what your character feels and how that character displays (or doesn’t display) those feelings.


  •  means conveying exact meaning to the reader; it is, literally, telling the reader information.
  •  compresses word count (useful in short stories and a synopsis).
  •  alerts the reader that the information, or the character, is relatively unimportant.
  •  can smooth transition in time, distance, or viewpoint.
  •  can establish a mood or setting when you do not wish to do this in any character’s viewpoint.
  •  is the continual search for fresh ways to give your reader information the reader must have.

To know if you’re telling vs. showing, look for “clue” words that tip you off when you may be telling more than showing, such as was, were, are, to be (as in, The sun was hot.).

If the telling is done in a character’s viewpoint, it is really showing us how a character sees the world.

If dialogue is about plot exposition, it is really telling a plot point to the reader—this is why exposition in dialogue usually falls flat and leaden (use dialogue to show more how a character is feeling).

Use of deep viewpoint allows the reader to ‘discover’ your characters through showing that inner person.

A character’s actions always speak louder to the reader than any thoughts or narrative about that character; actions reveal true character—you can tell a reader a character is brave, but if you show that person acting like a coward the reader will believe the action, not the telling.

To better show a character, give your characters mannerisms (physical and verbal habits) that reveal their inner person.

In general, if you have a character thinking something, put that thought into dialogue. 

Most people respond to any motivating stimulus (something happening) in this order FEELING, BETRAYING ACTION, THOUGHT, DELIBERATE ACTION (GESTURE/SPEECH), so that’s how you want to structure scenes, so that a character feels something, acts on that feeling, then says something.

The main except to the above response order comes when training or instinct kicks in action before all else. 

Less can be more (in both show and tell)–what you leave out is often more important than what you include. (Just don’t be obscure.)

Words and sentences and paragraphs that do not add anything actually detract from what is there–the end result is to weaken the good stuff.

Multiple edits are your friend; it’s not necessary to get everything in one pass.  Make one edit about dialogue, the next edit about punching the narrative (telling), the next edit about adding more showing details, etc..

Showing and telling do not have to be absolutes; use more show than tell in a dramatic scene, or use more tell than show in a transition.  Part of the choice about how much of each you have is your style, and part is the effect you want to have on the reader.

For the rest…well, you’ll just have to take the workshop.