Monday, January 16, 2012

Tell Me First, Then Show Me

You’ve finished a manuscript, and now you’re sitting down to the daunting task of revising it. You page through your text, tearing your hair out because you realize it’s chock full of telling! Where’s all the action? The depth? The showing?

You know what? This is normal. So let your hair stay where it is.

Early drafts often consist of the main character telling the author his/her story. The very nature of this act generates a lot of telling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Later drafts consist of converting all that telling into showing. But how do we do that? Well, let’s take a look at telling vs. showing.

Telling consists of words that replace action with a description of the scene. In other words, there is a person telling the reader what’s going on (instead of simply letting them see the story for themselves) and saying things like “She feels sad because she’s missing her husband” or “She’s mad because her best friend stood her up” or “She sees the locket that her husband left for her” (these are extreme examples, but you get the idea).

This analogy works for all words that tell us that the characters are doing/thinking/feeling/seeing/etc something, instead of showing us how they are doing/thinking/feeling/seeing/hearing/etc something. That vs. How, this is the main issue.

Here are some examples of classic telling:
  1. Jana heard the wind chimes outside the door.
  2. I saw/noticed/perceived the diamond on her ring finger, and felt angry that she’d agreed to marry that scum. (another form: I realized she had a diamond on her finger...)
  3. Theresa was a teacher’s pet.
All of these sentences describe something that would have much greater impact through action. That is the essence of telling.

Showing consists of action. Plain and simple. It’s in the character’s physical actions, AND it’s in body language, habits, possessions, clothing, hobbies, voice, etc. It’s in how the characters do something, not that they do it.

When you ask someone to show you how to do something, do you expect that person to give you a list of steps and then send you off? No. You’re asking them to get up and Do Something. The same thing applies to writing. Give your characters action, and you will be showing them to the reader.

Let’s convert the above examples of classic telling into showing.
  1. The wind chimes tinkled, high and beautiful. Jana opened the door, and a soft breeze cooled her hot skin. Finally, a break from the unbearable heat.
  2. The diamond glinted on Mary’s ring finger. What? How could she agree to marry that man, after he’d ‘accidentally’ put her in the hospital?
  3. On the first day of school, Theresa was the first one to class. She chose the seat right in front of the teacher’s desk, like always, and arranged her books and pencils on the desk. She pulled a silver pen from her backpack, polishing off the smudges from her fingertips, and attached the “From Theresa” tag to the top. She carefully set it on the teacher’s desk, then slid back into her seat.
When your main character hears, sees, feels, notices, realizes, etc something, we assume it’s the main character because that’s who’s story this is. So, we don’t need to know that she hears something. We need to know what she hears/sees/feels/etc, as well as how it affects her as a person. All at the same time.

For example, don’t tell us that your character is peeling potatoes. Show us how she does it. Is she slow and meticulous? Is she quick and efficient? Does she slam things around? Answers to these kinds of questions show us what kind of person she is, as well as what kind of mood she’s in. We don’t need to be told that she’s angry if she’s slamming things around. We can see it for ourselves. Just like we can see that she’s in a good mood if she’s humming.

All that said, it’s totally fine if your first draft is riddled with telling. The first draft, sometimes called the ‘zero draft,’ is really to get the story sorted out on a high level. Once you have that done, then you can go through and convert your telling to showing. It usually takes me three drafts to get to this point…

After you’ve gone through your manuscript to eliminate the telling, go through it again. A common mistake writers make is to add showing, but not remove all of the telling – i.e. showing anger, then telling the reader that the character is angry (or vice versa). That may take more than one pass, because trusting your reader to understand what you’re saying is really hard.

But, trust me, it’s worth it. :)


Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing the examples of how to avoid telling. I'm trying to avoid it more as I start a new draft. But I know there's room for improvement.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post! To me, this is the fun part of revision, really making your writing shine. Great tips, Tabitha.

Anonymous said...

Something that needs telling again and again, thanks for showing us how :)

Unknown said...

Thanks for clarifying these for me, this post was much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Great examples! Thanks! I find the same thing is true, that my first draft is filled with telling. I've also noticed that sometimes adverbs are a form of telling-- they're not only flags for possible weak verbs, but for possible showing and not telling... I did a post on it back in the fall:

Anonymous said...

I love the first draft process- its the part where my characters tell me what the story about- and you are so right- in the first draft you really do need to tell. THe editing of it is the fun part where you get to be creative and tell your story.
Great post :) Tee

LM Preston said...

This is a writer's mantra. Although I do have to say in some genre's there is more 'telling' accepted than in others. But I believe the less the better.

Mirka Breen said...

Very thorough, Tabitha. I try to alternate in narration between the two, but there’s a different balance for different genres. Good thoughts to hold in revision.

Tabitha said...

Sorry I was MIA yesterday. There was no school and I spent the day with my kids. :)

Natalie - yeah, it always seems like there's always room for improvement, doesn't it? :) If it's overwhelming you, break it down into manageable drafts.

Kelly - revision is my absolute favorite part of writing! To me, the first draft is just raw material--the equivalent of plunking down a lump of clay. Revision is molding that clay into a beautiful sculpture. :)

Clairemca - very clever! I love it!

Elizabeth - so glad you found it helpful!

Tabitha said...

Angela - adverbs are a notorious form of telling. :) Your post is great!

Tgayer - thanks! I love revising, and I love brainstorming for the first draft. Writing is just fun, isn't it? :)

LM - yeah, I agree. And some high concept stories can carry more telling, too, simply because the premise is so intriguing. It's interesting how it can all balance out in the end.

Mirka - balance is a good thing, and sometimes telling is needed. It's sometimes really hard to find that balance, though, isn't it?