Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Personal Anecdote, Writing 101

The Write Way to “Show; Don’t Tell!”

Have you ever had a writing coach/professor or perhaps an editor/publisher tell you something like this: “Good writers tell the reader what’s happening, but [great] writers show the reader?” Most of us have, and, if you’re like me the first time I heard it, you may have held back a cacophony of expletives. What does that old adage, “show; don’t tell,” mean? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the elementary school tradition of bringing your puppy or a cool seashell from the beach to school?

Let’s keep it simple:

The puppy and the seashell have something in common. They’re powerful visuals. Students can absolutely fumble their way through the “Mommy said YES to the puppy” speech or where they found the shell, but the honest truth is that by showing the class their puppy and seashell, the other students were able to fill in most of the blanks and tell themselves the rest of the story.

Keynote: To show in writing means to use strong imagery and effective scenarios so that audiences don’t require much narrative to fill in the blanks.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth was sad, therefore uninterested in conversation with her friends.

ShowingElizabeth did not make any of her usual stops on the way to her desk this morning. She bypassed Tom’s raised hand, ignored Mary’s offer for raspberry donuts, a first, and cut straight through the advertising team without joining them for a customary Monday cup of Joe. When she sank down at the computer, Elizabeth hoped no one noticed the one tear escaping her eye.

There’s a stark contrast, right? The same information is conveyed in both examples. However, one of them is stronger and more engaging, which is always your goal. Let’s notice that showing took a much higher word count, 10 words as opposed to 59!

Be aware that “showing” often requires the use of more expressive language, so it will generally not help you cut from a story that is too long. However, it can be the magic maker when your project doesn’t have enough words.

 

CAUTION: Even though writers hear this particular literary critique often, please be careful. The unspoken truth that many other writing coaches and editors don’t want to tell you is that “showing” can make your work drag. You never want to make your reader feel like they’re wasting time. Sometimes brevity is just as, if not more engaging, than verbosity. So, there are times when I encourage you to get to the point.

Example:

Telling: Elizabeth hated Monday and all the crazy that came with it.

ShowingElizabeth knew it was the detestable first day of the work week by the way her alarm clock seemed so much louder than on other days and further away from her previously resting form. Once she’d silenced the menace, she sat up in bed and contemplated calling in sick from work so she could avoid all the cat-callers at the construction site in her neighborhood, the weird religious nut who rode her train every morning, and the annoying new assistant at her job who jabbered on until lunch.

 

This type of mellifluous prose sounds pretty, but it is not adding to the story. If these minor details are important enough for me to want to convey them to my readers, then I can show these details in action as my character moves throughout the day, or I can add them in as I write over time. Writing over time is the art of creating time progression in your piece. When done masterfully, it can allow you to slip in little details about your characters without throwing them at the reader all at once. It is a great tool for showing appropriately and telling moderately.

How do you learn how to write like that? Easy! I keep a checklist: Verbs, Adverbs, Characters/Dialogue, Setting. These are the 4 key places most writers can focus on to improve their “showing” and “telling.”

 

STRONG, SPECIFIC VERBS:

Rule 1: Choose the right verb for the right sentence. There are so many ways to express an action in English. Sometimes the easiest method to “show” versus “tell” comes just by choosing a more specific form of the verb you’ve already written.

Example:

Telling:    The dog ate his bone.

Showing: The dog devoured his bone. 

                  The dog nibbled his bone.

                  The dog gorged on his bone.

You can immediately tell the difference. Sometimes the fastest way to improve your writing is to just grab your closest thesaurus and jump in!

 

ADVERBS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS:

Rule 2: Use adverbs as a last resort. I guarantee that every show and tell slipup is connected in some way to adverb use. I, too, like the occasional modifier for verbs (not so much for my adjectives). However, most editors frown upon adverbs because they are rendered unnecessary by Rule 1. Correct verb choices often limit the need for adverbs. It also helps to give the reader a scene or situation that illustrates the moment being described.

Example:

Telling:    Her heart beat steadily with fear. 

Showing: Her heart quaked with fear. Each time she opened her mouth, shallow breaths stuttered in and out. Her palm was sweaty, so the microphone in her hand didn’t have a chance. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the poor girl ran offstage.

 

LET YOUR CHARACTERS/DIALOGUE DO THE WORK:

Rule 3: Use your characters’ unique voices to evoke emotion from readers. Every feeling and detail does not require explicit explanations for readers to understand your meaning or gain depth. There is a lot of information that can be expressed through character actions and interactions as well as dialogue. Allow your characters to bring us into their story.

Example:

Telling:    It was obvious to Brian that Emilia and Jarvis were an item, or at least used to be, and the atmosphere of the room became subtly discomforting as they exchanged passive-aggressive pleasantries. Brian wanted to crawl out of his skin in his desire to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Showing: Brian looked between the two, wondering if this was what Alex had tried to warn him about. He cleared his throat, “So, now that we’re here–“

                  “That’s a nice jacket,” Emilia cut Brian off without taking her eyes off of Jarvis. Her lips lifted at the corners, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

                 “Thanks. It was a gift.” Jarvis didn’t bother with the smile.

                 “Interesting,” she replied, “From Belgium, I presume?” It sounded more like a statement.

                 “No. Morroco.”

                “I thought you’d never been to Morroco.” Her tone might have been sharper than she’d intended. Her lips flipped in the other direction.

                “Not with you.” Jarvis’s smile did come to his eyes.

               “Well! Look at the time!” Brian pulled his sleeve over an empty wrist and tripped over his shoelaces trying to grab the doorknob. “It’s been a great meeting everyone. Same time next week!”

SET THE SCENE:

Rule 4: Let your setting say more than you do. Think about how you can utilize the five senses in your story and try to draw them out as much as possible. Don’t simply describe the scene; take us there with you. Reveal to the reader what you see; play the sounds you want them to hear; and give them a sweet or sour taste in their mouth from having visited.

Example:

Telling:    It was a dark and stormy night as Allison made her way to the castle.

Showing: Allison no longer felt the shivers traveling through her long cloak. Everything from the long dark hairs on her head down to her toes in the leather, riding boots was numb. The reins in her hands slipped several times from wet, and she’d long since given up hope of being able to see past her horse’s head. She could only trust the mount to have better eyesight than she in this heavy wind and unforgiving onslaught. All around she could smell mold and mildew and leather as her party pushed forward towards their journey’s end. As they continued, a vast shape in the distance broke through the dark night at last. The familiar towers with their rising parapets rose like hands of God to tear the sky. Allison sucked in cold rain and bits of ice, but it didn’t matter. She could see the end. Home.

 

There you have it! I hope you enjoyed today’s post! I also hope that you take these steps into consideration during your current or next project. If you have other rules for “showing vs telling” or alternative feelings on this topic PLEASE leave a comment and help educate our growing community here. Please link us to some of your work or your blogs!

As always:

I’m excited to read what you’re writing!

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Creating Your Perfect Story Arc, Uncategorized, Writing 101

Always Remember: Side Characters are Main Characters

I read a lot of romance [more than I care to admit family…even to you], and my favorite trope of long-running romance series is their tendency to give every character mentioned their own title role in a book. Some authors, like JR Ward in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series, do this masterfully. You read the novels demanding to understand how it’s possible that every Joe Blow that walks across the page from the star-studded hunk to the introverted janitor can find love, but you’re still chilling on Saturday afternoons with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and these love novels. [And you believe it!?]

 

Unfortunately, not all writers can do this. Some of these series are contrived at best, insulting to your intelligence at worst. But why? Same trope…same flavor of Ben & Jerry’s? Right? Well…not exactly.

 

Many authors treat side characters as though they’re just that…only relevant to what’s going on in the sidelines. They give no thought to the important purpose these characters and their personalities bring to the story or how they can influence the greater scope of the work. Most importantly, they forget that side characters are the main characters of their own unique and individual storylines. They should be treated with the utmost care and respect.

 

For a great example, look to the graphic accompanying this article. Originally Robin was an afterthought that took root in Bob Kane’s and the other writers’ minds as a way to tract younger readership and create a “Holmes-Watson” dynamic for the Caped Crusader. Pretty soon, however, the character AND title of Robin became their own movement. Whole comics, teams, TV shows, and movies would be centered on or heavily feature this character or a character with this role. He’s not only considered as one of history’s greatest sidekicks, but he’s also repeatedly documented in the top 20 comic book characters/heroes of all time.

 

So how do you protect yourself from falling into the trap of sidelining side characters? Easy! Take time to develop a short backstory or history for the characters you plan to mention more than twice in your story. Even if it’s only a few notes about their origin or motivations, have a solid understanding and appreciation for who they are and what they bring to the overall plot line. This will help you to not only have a stronger voice when you write these characters, but it will help you have a better sense of the entire story you plan to write.

 

And you never know… They could show up later as having a larger role than you originally intended. The person you mention in passing in the first paragraph could be the key to your plot resolution in the last chapter. So, [great] writers, take care: the side characters you threw in to carry your plot line today could become the leads in your bestseller tomorrow.

 

Do you have any great tidbits or tips when it comes to character development? How do you create engaging personalities for your work? What should we talk about in our next article? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our page and follow for more great insight!

 

As always, I can’t wait to read what you’re writing!

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