Tag Archive | telling

Show More, Tell Better

“Writing well is the best revenge.” — Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.

Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author.  This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:

– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.

– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.

– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.

– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.

Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.

But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?

– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on 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 get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.

Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.

– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? 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. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.

– 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-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.

– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?

You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”

Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. 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. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.


Really Good Narrative

There’s a time to show…but there’s also a time to TELL. A really good narrative is invaluable in many stories.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

There is no exact formula for what is enough telling.  However, readers always need to know:

– Where are we? (Place and world – the reader needs to be placed into the scene, otherwise it’s confusing to the reader. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help.)

– When are we? (What’s the era, the time of the year, the month, the day, the hour? We need everything that helps the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.)

– Who is here? (An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene, and for the story.)

– Why are we were? (This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough details to make a reader care. Think of it this way—too little and you starve the reader’s imagination; too much and the reader quickly fills up and drops the book down.)

All this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads, not dumped on the reader in big clumps. Or, to put it another way, feed the reader your telling—your narrative—with a teaspoon, not a soup bowl.

Good narrative does a lot of things for you:

– It condenses information, which helps keep the pace of the story moving forward.

– It weaves in backstory and plot exposition, so you don’t have to have huge info dumps.

– It allows touches of your author voice to add atmosphere and mood to a story.

– It allows you, the author, to set the scene for the reader, thereby setting expectations about the story—you’re basically setting up the reader to enjoy the story (and not have to work too hard).

Bad narrative also does a lot of things for you, but worst of all, poor narrative is awkward, verbose and  tends to make a reader put down the book.

So how do you know if your narrative—your story telling—is working?

– Have someone else read the story—and just have them make an X on the page every time their attention starts to wander. That’s a place where the telling is probably getting to overload.

– Look at the balance of action (showing) to telling—go through with a colored marker and make sure you’re not telling too much.

– Use the story telling to move into and out of scenes (for transitions). Within a scene, cut the telling and only show your characters in action. Only tell if you must to clarify action, intent, or motivations (and even then look for better ways to show this instead of tell).

Most of all, if it works, don’t fix it. But if it doesn’t work, time to get back to edits to make the story work for the reader.


What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.

The Importance of Showing–and Telling

casI’m starting my Show and Tell workshop Monday and it always kicks off with everyone focused on showing more and better. Great stories do need great scenes with lots of showing, which has the characters on the page and expressing emotion. However, there’s a place for the narrative in any fiction–a writer needs both these tools.

(Oh, and, yes, Cas–our dog–will be  napping during the workshop in his favorite chair.)

Now, I like to say that what most writers really need to look at is how to tell better in the right places and show more of the character expressing emotion. It’s usually emotion that gets left off the page (and out of the scene). How do you do this?

There are some technical tricks that can help. (Cas doesn’t care about these, but he does like a good bone to chew on.)

1 – Tell when you need to get some quick information on the page—or to shorten what you need to convey to the writer. Telling is a great way to compress time, handle a transition to a new scene, or simply put some info that on the page that you need for the reader. Nothing is worse than exposition put into a character’s mouth. That makes your dialogue stiff and often makes the character sound stupid for stating what is probably obvious.

2- Show more by eliminating ‘telling’ dialogue tags. 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 how your characters express emotion on the page—that’s where you need to show more.

3 – Use telling to alert the reader that the character is relatively unimportant. This is where a lot of writers get it wrong by telling too much about the main character, which makes that person seem unimportant. This sentence makes it clear that the cab driver is not a main character: The cab driver dropped her off at the train station. If you spend three paragraphs describing what that cab driver looks like, how he drives, and how he acts, you are showing that character is important. Keep things clear for reader—what you give pages to matters most.

4 – Show you character in action right away to get a reader’s interest and sympathy. This is key to creating likeable characters, or at least character that a reader is willing to settle down with for a few hours. If your main character is supposed to be smart, show that person doing something smart. If your main character is an ace magic user, show that character using that magic in an amazing way. A lot of writers feel like they have to show the character in a tough situation—that’s fine. But really look at what you have shown—is the situation all that tough or is the character just being stupid? You may get the reader’s scorn instead of sympathy.

5 – If you tell, you don’t need to show; if you show you don’t need to tell. This is about trusting your readers to ‘get it’. You do not need to hit the reader over the head. You don’t need to say: He was angry. And then show that character being angry. Repeating information can blunt the impact on the reader—your writing starts to feel dull and the scene sags. Sometimes repetition can be used for a certain impact, but use this technique carefully and with intent.

6 – Do remember to get the emotion onto the page—either show it or tell it but put it on the page. It’s easy when you’ve got a lot of action to get lost in getting that sorted out and forget that the reader really wants to know what the character is feeling. This is something I see a lot of in contest manuscripts. The writing is good, there’s plenty of action, but I have no emotional involvement because I have no idea if the character is frightened, amped up on adrenaline, angry, or covering up feelings. Know your characters, and get their emotions on the page!

7 – Cut the clichés in both your showing and your telling. Readers want a familiar read, but not a duplicate of something read a hundred times before—cliché actions and reactions flatten your story. Cut or change every cliché. 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. Put a fresh spin on every cliché—whether it is narrative or a reaction to a situation. To do this, you need to know every character and your character must react in character—this means no making character take actions to make a plot work.

Work on your telling so it’s tight, brilliant writing—no one’s going to tell you to cut writing that is wonderful, even if it’s all telling. And then in scenes get more emotion on the page by showing how your characters express emotion. It’s that simple—but simple is always hard work. (Harder than burying a bone, according to Cas.)

For more about this–and some great exercises, check out the workshop.

Showing vs. Telling — The Advantages to Each

Aug_SkyThe cliche advice is “show don’t tell” because most beginning writers start off telling too much. And that can be boring–unless the writing is really, really, really great. There are places where telling can be useful–but you want to know the difference between the two.

This is telling the reader information:  He was angry.

There is nothing wrong with that sentences. Except it doesn’t really show your character in action and doesn’t reveal characterization. An actor would take this and use it in a movie to SHOW more–does his guy get quite when he’s angry, does he yell, does he press his mouth flat and ball up a fist, does he punch someone, does the pulse jump in his jaw, does he smile? All those little details would SHOW the character expressing anger–and suddenly the character becomes more vivid to the reader–the character becomes more real. Which is what every writer (and reader) wants.

This is also telling the reader information: The sun was hot.

Again, that’s a perfectly valid sentence. And you may want those short beats and the punch in that sentence. But hot in Texas is a different hot than Death Valley in California and both of those are a different hot from the hot in Orlando, Florida. So if you want to put the reader into that world, you want to SHOW the heat. As in:

Heat waves lifted from the black top that stretched like a pencil line east and west. Shading his eyes from the glare, Joe scanned the highway. Freeways they called them here. Empty, he thought. To either side, baked land stretched to purple mountains and thin bushes struggled to stay upright. Not even enough water for a tree–or a cactus. Joe wet dry, cracking lips. Sweat trickled down his back and off his temples. His shoulders slumped. He would kill for a cold beer. But he had half a plastic bottle of warm water and a broken down Chevy truck that was turning into an oven.

Now the reader can FEEL that heat–they’ve got a parched mouth, too, just like Joe, because this layers in enough details to really SHOW Joe feeling that kind of dry, dusty desert heat.

But notice that showing takes more words–a short story is a place to tell a little more, but a novel gives you room to show. Telling can also help smooth transitions of time or place. And telling is the best way to get a synopsis done.

So show more where you need emotion and to pull the reader into the story, and use the telling in places where you need to compress time or distance. Use the tools the way that works best for your story.

And for more about showing and telling, I’m doing an online workshop next month (in June) for Heart of Carolina Romance Writers.

Break it Down–to Put it Together

BellyDanceDarMaghreb 045I’m about to start my Show & Tell Workshop for the FF&P chapter of RWA, and as always I’ve started thinking about the workshop. Inevitably, questions come up that aren’t related to the workshop, and I really do try to keep folks focused just on the workshop. There’s a reason for this.

When I first got serious about writing one of the most frustrating things about it is that there are so many moving parts. There’s dialogue, pacing, getting your characters on the page, narrative, description, punctuation, grammar, action, active voice, viewpoint, plotting, theme, and the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. Most of this stuff you learn because any writer starts out as an avid reader—and by reading you learn a lot about this stuff. But sometimes you have to break it down.

Breaking it down is something I learned from dance (belly dance specifically). In dance, you break down the moves so you can learn them not just one step at a time, but one body part at a time. Breaking it down with the writing lets you focus on not just trouble areas, but on getting a firm grip on some of the technical stuff. Why do this?

Getting the technical stuff out of the way:

1- Lets the characters and story shine—you really want the story and the characters to be front and center, not all the other stuff. To keep that other stuff invisible, you have to master it, so you can forget it.

2-Means less revision. You’re not constantly having to fix the typos—a little of that is not a lot of work, but many, many typos mean much, much work.

3-Lets you focus on bigger issues. Let’s face it, if you’re struggling with viewpoint control, or showing vs. telling, you’re probably going to be neglecting the bigger stuff—like did you really motivate your main character’s key choices, or did you really nail that dark moment, or do you have a strong grasp of what the book is really about. I’ve seen a lot of writers dig technical holes for themselves, and everything else suffers.

4-Can speed up your production. The stronger my technical skills have become, the smoother the writing, meaning fewer drafts, and faster production. This isn’t always true—other things (such as life) can step in to interfere with a project, but strong technical skills means you aren’t stuck trying to solve technical problems with the work.

5-Lets you have some more fun. Technical stuff is often a drag—it’s a lot of detail, so if you’re not a detail person this can seem like stuff you really don’t want to deal with. It’s actually the stuff you want to get so good at that it stops mattering. Then you can really fly.

6-Puts you on the path to art. We all go through stages of learning—and sometimes we’re blessed with stories that are gifts. But art really comes from a marriage of craft and passion. You may be born with the passion, but if the craft is lacking—the technique—expressing your passion can be held in check. So this is where you want to be so solid with your technical skills than you can actually forget them—and let something more take over.

7-Means that your technique is always there for you. Stuff happens. Passion can fade. And deadlines can bring stress that makes your muse hide. But your technical skills will be there no matter what. And it’s great to be able to fall back on that sometimes when you need to get work produced because that is your job.

So…don’t be afraid to break it down—to focus on one skill at a time. Pick an area where you know your skills are weak and just make that the thing you want to improve. Then you can figure out how to put it back together to get your story on track.

The Art of Narrative

showandtellI’m about to do my Show & Tell Workshop online for OCC this May, and I always put in a pitch not just to show more, but to tell better.

Narrative seems to have gone out of fashion. It doesn’t seem to be taught, and no one seems to really get what it is. So let’s make it easy.

Merriam-Webster gives us the root for narrative/narrating as the “Latin narratus, past participle of narrare, from Latin gnarus knowing; akin to Latin gnoscere, noscere to know.”

This means it’s basically the author telling the reader the information the author knows, which the reader also needs to know. And now you ask, what does the reader need to know, and when does the reader need it, and how much does the reader need. This is where narrative becomes an art.

Look at this passage from Delta of Venus by Anais Nin:

They fell on this, the three bodies in accord, moving against each other to feel breast against breast and belly against belly. They ceased to be three bodies. They became all mouths and fingers and tongues and senses. Their mouths sought another mouth, a nipple, a clitoris. They lay entangled, moving very slowly. They kissed until the kissing became a torture and the body grew restless. Their hands always found yielding flesh, an opening. The fur they lay on gave off an animal odor, which mingled with the odors of sex…

That’s beautiful, evocative writing–and it’s all narrative telling. But it works!

Or from the Dubliners by James Joyce:

Then late one night as he was undressing for bed she had tapped at his door, timidly. She wanted to relight her candle at his for hers had been blown out by gust. It was her bath night. She wore a loose open combing-jacket of printed flannel. Her white instep shone in the opening of her furry slippers and the blood glowed warmly behind her perfumed skin. From her hands and wrists too as she lit and steadied her candle a faint perfume arose.

Now, I’m not saying you have to strive for great art–although that’s not a bad goal. But narrative can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever do. The trick here is when do you use narrative, and do you make it wonderful? Or do you slap down descriptions to hurry forward in the story, terrified that your pace is flagging?

I read too many manuscripts these days from young writers (and I mean by writing age, not their real age) which seem rushed. They  hurry into scenes without setting up the world and the time and the true pace of the story.

Showing can be a great too–but so can  narrative. Don’t neglect this invaluable tool! And to learn more about how to do this, check out the workshop. We’ll be doing a lot of hands-on work.