Do You Really Know How To “Show, Don’t Tell”?

Idea

 

Yesterday marked my deadline for completing the pre-edits for Marred. “Pre-edits” seems like it would be an easy task. It wasn’t. Once the track edits begin in two weeks, I’m not allowed to change anything other than what the editor points out. So I wanted to go through the manuscript…one…more…time…and improve it to the best of my ability.

I went word-by-word, line-by-line, scene-by-scene…and checked scene structure, MRUs, and overall suspense, chose stronger verbs, deleted filler, etc. etc. And I learned something about myself. I am a perfectionist who is never happy until I’ve ripped everything apart, drove myself crazy, pulled out half my hair, beaten myself into exhaustion, and then rebuilt. Now, I’m satisfied…for two weeks…until the cycle begins again.

Is this a flaw? I think so, but it also drives me to improve.

In the pre-edits I looked for writing tics and things that dragged down the writing and/or slowed the pacing. The phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” is some of the oldest and most misunderstood advice in the industry. Show, Don’t Tell does not only mean to show a character’s action instead of naming an emotion; it goes way deeper than that.

When you write in Deep POV, like so many books today, even your narrative must Show, Don’t Tell. It should read as though the character is speaking rather than author intrusion. Years ago, books used an omniscient narrator, but today readers expect more. It is at the editing stage where you can amp your writing to the next level by concentrating on these changes.

 

Telling words are:

  • S/he thought
  • Mused
  • Wondered
  • Guessed
  • Hoped
  • Realized
  • Wished
  • Watched

These words pull the reader out of the story. Think about it. We don’t think, “I wondered if the windshield could stop a bullet.” Or, “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley alone.” We just think it. As such, our stories need to reflect that.

Instead of the first example “I wondered” we need to write “When I saw the gun I ducked under the dash. Could the glass stop a bullet?”

See how more immediate it sounds? The reader remains in the story.

Let’s take the second example. Which is one of my writing tics by the way.

Instead of: “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley.”

Try: “If only I had traveled my regular route home.”

 

Instead of: “She realized he was a creep.”

Try: “Creep.”

 

We are in the character’s head. Cut the fluff.

Phrases like Seemed to, Tried to, Began to…are also telling phrases. I once read a blog post where the author was ranting about characters “trying to” do things, and he rambled on and on about “Why is everyone only trying? Just do it already!” The post, comical as it was, always stuck with me. The author also happens to be correct. We can’t have our characters “trying” to do something. They do it.

While editing, I was amazed by how many times I used “tried to” or “started to”. For me, this took time to master.

For instance, in Marred I have a section of a scene where the deputy sheriff, Frankie Campanelli, shoves the sheriff while he’s rising from the sofa. My first instinct was to write, “As he started to rise, she shoved him back down.” There are several things wrong with this sentence, but let’s concentrate on the action. I rewrote the sentence as “He rose halfway and Frankie shoved him onto the sofa.” Less words, more immediate.

We all have our tics. Lord knows I have many. The trick is acknowledging what they are so we correct them during editing. Preferably before you submit to publishers and/or agents. I never was one to do things the “right way”, but I’m paying for it now. Now, I have a ticking clock. Whereas before I could move at my own pace. This becomes even more important if you decide to go the self-publishing route, because once you push that publish button your book is out there. Well, I shouldn’t say “more important”. You could save yourself headaches from reading rejection letters if you tighten your writing before you submit, but that is an entirely different post.

Here’s a writing tic that always cracks me up: “His eyes shot to her little black book. Was that man’s number in there?”

Body parts cannot move independently from the rest of the body. While working with my critique partner we used to laugh about this all the time. It’s easy to write this way in a first draft. Reading the above sentence makes me envision eyeballs shooting across the room and landing on a little black book. Unless you’re writing science fiction where the protagonist is a lovely robot like Lisa, my friend Craig Boyack’s creation, body parts need someone to move them.

Instead of: “His eyes shot across the room.”

Try: “His gaze shot across the room.”

 

Instead of: “Her arm raised and she waved.”

Try: “She waved.”

 

Which brings me to…

 

Double action
When someone waves, they obviously have their hand “raised”. Same with “reach”.

Instead of: “He reached out and grabbed the candle.”

Try: “He grabbed the candle.”

Better: “He swiped the candle.”

“Grabbed” is so overused. It’s always better to find a specific action that paints a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind. “Swiped” shows us he moved quickly like he didn’t want to be seen.

 

Sensory tells

  • She heard
  • Felt
  • Touched
  • Smelled
  • Saw
  • Tasted

 

Instead of “She heard a van outside her house and froze.”

Try: “A van rumbled outside her window. She froze.”

 

Instead of: “She saw a dark-haired man slip through the back gate and into the yard.”

Try: “A dark-haired man slipped between the gates, into the backyard.”

 

Less is more.

 

Instead of: “She tasted his blood on her tongue and gagged.”

Try: “She gagged, choking on his blood.”

 

It may not seem like a big deal to use a few telling words, but it is. After you make these changes, read through your manuscript start to finish, and you’ll see a marked improvement in your writing.

 

 

Guest post contributed by Sue Coletta. Sue is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters In Crime and has a passion for crime fiction writing. Check out her blog for more of her articles and information about her books.

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85 thoughts on “Do You Really Know How To “Show, Don’t Tell”?”

  1. Hello! This is a nice article and very helpful. Compared to other articles they are more demanding, serious, and accusing when pointing out their tips and makes me discouraged at times, while I feel very comfortable reading yours. I am still working hard on show and not tell in my work, so thank you for this article!! =)
    -From LeQuita.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I love this!

    I think show not tell is one of the most often repeated, but never properly explained rules for writing. I can remember being told ‘show not tell’ in school and I can not think of a single time I was shown how to do this.

    These days my first drafts are full of telling. I go back later and change everything I can to showing the story. It makes for a much tighter, more active narrative. Maybe some day I will manage to get to the showing earlier, but for now fixing it later works for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Went through all the post. I could not be more agree. It is so difficult to remove the printed paper between the story and your reader…
    Even more if, like me, you happen to be a not native english speaker who writes in english.

    Your advices are highly appreciated. Keep up with the good work!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Sure! It always good to learn more. Everyday must keep learning 🙂

        I am a passionate of mystery novels, movies and series. I took a look at your blog and found it very interesting!

        What a shame that it cannot be followed by wordpress!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoyed this post a lot! I’m also a “learning writer” and I struggle with “show, don’t tell a lot” but as you said, the key is to notice our own mistakes and too work on them.
    Thanks for sharing your experience!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Excellent post. This especially: “It should read as though the character is speaking rather than author intrusion.” Right on. I found good training for this as a script coordinator on films & TV shows. In a script, the writer cannot spell out emotions. (Only very sparingly, can s/he put a “parenthetical” such as (angrily) or (embarrassed) within a piece of dialogue. Directors hate to see too many of those, and would disparage such things as coming from a writer who is actually a wannabe director! The point is that you’re forced to portray the emotion within the dialogue itself, along with perhaps a bit of description in the “action” lines. But minimal. The most succinct script I ever saw came from David Mamet, when I worked on “Heist.” Good stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for this. It will be very helpful in making this week’s line editing as painless as possible. Because I HATE that Deep POV is the new fad. Yup, I’m old-fashioned and believe that an adept, over-the-shoulder/in-the-brain-of-one narrator is not something to be damned or unsellable. I totally agree that cutting all the fat you described is great, because it’s too telly or redundant regardless of POV. And you don’t want to say things like “In the other room, Sally opened a cabinet” when your POV character cannot see this happening. But the notion that the third person narrator can only describe things as the character would is so limiting and awkward to me. A narrator subtly stepping in to provide a bit of necessary eloquence is not going to ruin your book. Psychic distance does not need to be stagnant, so long as you use a “literary dolly” to ease in and out of it, instead of haphazardly jerking it around.

    Example – what if I want to describe “buttresses” on a building, from the third person, but I don’t think my character knows the word “buttresses?” Can I use it? Or am I supposed to weigh down the narrative and confuse the reader with the narration describing them as “long concrete support thingys holding up the building?” – which is how my character would say it. Eloquence – and thereby, clarity – will ALWAYS come first to me, regardless of whether the narration swings a little broader in psychic distance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Deep POV isn’t the only way to go to make a book sellable. It’s merely another POV at our disposable. If you prefer a broader third person, then by all means use what works for you. It’s an artistic choice. What works for one may not for another. It gives variety to books, and that’s a wonderful thing. How boring would it be if all our books sounded the same. I wish you HUGE success!

      Like

      1. Thanks Sue – I believe that too. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the market does. I may have to wait about ten years for this to blow over before anything I write is publishable, ha! I wonder if A Series of Unfortunate Events would get published today, because the things Daniel Handler did with POV in that series was crazy. Third person omniscient with intentional author intrusion, occasional second person intended towards the reader…but perfectly, expertly done.

        I guess the smartest thing to do is to find books that are written in my preferred POVs and find those authors’ agents, because those agents may not be as picky.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I believe if you handle it well, today’s readers will love it. But yes, tailor your queries to those agents who are more open-minded to other POVs. Best of luck!

        Like

  7. Wow, this was great, and on a topic which is one of my favorite. Show don’t tell is such broadly useful advice: Show actions, don’t tell emotions. Design scenes to show personality or goals, don’t just state them.
    This particular version, however, is a subtle one that I don’t think I ever consciously noted, and I can immediately see how valuable it is. I can’t wait to try editing through this lens.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @aetherhouse – Have you read “The Martian”? Talk about ‘deep POV’!! So effective!!! The thing with ‘over-the-shoulder’ writing is that the reader is then one step removed from the narrative, i.e. there is someone standing between him/her (so to speak) and all the drama that’s playing out. Of course it has its place and can be effective too. But if we really want the reader to experience everything viscerally, I think ‘deep POV’ is the way to go. Just IMHO.

    Like

    1. I’m going to read The Martian sometime this month. I think in a book like that, where you have ONE character in isolation in a situation that caters to his expertise, Deep POV is appropriate. Especially because, I imagine, a lot of the book dwells on his memories and flashbacks as he copes with his situation.

      Unless the voice is realistic 100% of the time, I am generally distracted by the fact that most protagonists would never tell a story as eloquently as they do (true of 1st person as well). You have to suspend disbelief that the protagonist would be a good writer in addition to everything else they do. I don’t have to suspend disbelief that a narrator can deftly wield language. Just a preference I guess. A depressing, unpopular one, but I can’t help what i like.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But they’re not, at least in The Martian, writing. They’re thinking.

        I dunno, I just get all submerged in his situation, living it with him through his five senses. Makes it so immediate for me. But yes, what you like best is of course a personal choice.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this article. I have read many articles on ‘show don’t tell’ and always find them helpful.

    However, I have found some master story tellers ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’ and they seem to get away with it. How do you reconcile this?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just to put in my two cents, all the greats “tell” as well as “show.” I feel it’s impossible not to eventually. The key to the greats is to minimize the “telling” and to know when to use it.

      Stephen King says that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” yet he uses them…albeit sparingly. Discretion is the key, methinks.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. There’s many forms of telling in fiction. Even “two days later” is telling. It comes down to where can we get away with it and where we can’t. After all, we can’t very well tell a story without some telling. Variety is key. When you transition between scenes, use telling. When something isn’t important, tell it so the reader breezes by. But when you want to immerse your reader, especially at your milestone scenes, make them feel it by “showing.” After a while your story sensibilities will tell you where to show and where to tell. Trust your instincts.

      Like

  10. I detest the “show, don’t tell” commandment, and refuse to read anything written in its spirit. Consequently, there is no way I can be deterred from telling shamelessly and massively. My true way to go is intrusive omniscient narration. Incompetent readers will never be able to change my mind.

    Like

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