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!

Standard
Personal Anecdote

What Disney & Marvel’s “Black Panther” Means for Marginalized Voices

If you’re a writer (or ANY creative talent from a marginalized community tbh), thank the creators and actors involved in this amazing film for blowing open a door that’s only had a small wedge in it for decades.

I personally have so many #FEELS after watching (and rewatching!) the film that seems destined to redefine the landscape of the “superhero origin story”. I wrote on social media that I had so many thoughts and reactions as a woman, a nerd, a person of color, as well as a black female nerd (because each of those realities has been a different experience growing up!). Each of one those consciouses is at war for dominance right now.

But the writer is winning.

Here’s why:

While television has been known, especially in recent years, to break the boundaries on marginalized voices: Hollywood is still notoriously #whitewashed and #maledominated. Those stories, those heroes (and villains) are still the loudest, most publicly recognized and most awarded on the big screen.

We’re all familiar now with the tropes of a blockbuster movie, so I won’t take the time to spell them out. Let’s just remember #OscarsSoWhite is still a relevant movement, not only due to institutionalized prejudice, but also to the belief that marginalized stories are only important to the communities telling them. Women go see chick flicks, nerds go see sci-fi, LGBTQ+ communities watch gender identity/”alternative” sexuality movies, etc.

Of course many of you (being the beautiful people that you are) are thinking, “Hey I watch movies with casts that don’t look or live the same way I do. And I know lots of popular movies like that.” But remember: popular does not always translate to lucrative.

We remember films we thought would break the barriers, but unfortunately, fell short at the box office:

Milk (2008) – $54.6 million, Birth of a Nation (2016) – $16.8 million, Fences (2016) – $64.4 million

And there have been a few films featuring marginalized groups, cultures, or lifestyles that met or exceeded our expectations:

Brokeback Mountain (2005) – $178.1 million , Hidden Figures (2016) – $236 million , Sex and the City (2008) – $415.2 million [Because proper any portrayals of sexual liberation for women is still an issue!]

But I would argue that no recent (or long past) films have been popular, have been lucrative, have been critically-acclaimed, and have been able to engender such poignant conversations on race, cultural representation, feminism, and historical narratives as this film as done ALL while featuring a predominantly non-white, mixed gender cast.

If you disagree, I dare you to call me out with a better example at any time in film history.

Black Panther is shattering box office records left and right. At the time of this post, it has already grossed a projected $235 million opening weekend debut, breaking at least seven records and landing in the top 10 of at least nine more! That’s amazing for any movie, but it is especially incredible for a film with a lead actor wearing a big-cat-themed leotard.

Director Ryan Coogler [Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015)] and his amazing, star-studded cast accomplished by staying true to their mission of using the fictionalized nation of Wakanda to create an authentic, honest Afrocentric perspective. The creators and cast pulled no punches whatsoever in their dialogues. This movie tackled some huge issues that are relevant topics of discussion: colonialism, contemporary effects of slavery, cultural representation, global politics, and familial value systems.

It is also featured some glorious, underrepresented features of African culture: scarification, lip plates, masks, tribal garments, colors, ancestral worship, dancing and drums! Be still my beating heart.

It was fun for the whole family, no matter what your family looks like. It created an inclusive atmosphere for sharing the story of millions of people whose voices have traditionally be shut out without mixing words or downplaying solid, historical truths. It also did that without sacrificing great writing for good jokes. We took these characters and their world seriously the entire way through the film. And we were forced to consider not only their decisions and world purview, but our own as well.

I say thank you to everyone who contributed to this film. I know there are so many more posts I can (and probably will!) right about it. However, it was most important for me to go on record as saying, if you come from a culture, a lifestyle, a birthright that has been largely ignored or marginalized in the past, this film should excite you. Even if it did not represent your unique truth, it offered proof that our voices are all capable of creating something valuable and lucrative.

Our voices are all relevant. And our voices don’t have to labeled “marginalized” anymore. We’re just waiting on writers like you with the boldness and daring of these creators to give us the next record-shattering, truth-giving narrative.

 

Standard