Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Don't Tell Me Why: Words That Often Tell, Not Show

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I talk about character goals and motivation a lot, because they're the backbone of any story. But sometimes, they can be a red flag that you're telling and not showing. Little words that slip in without us even noticing and lead us down the wrong path. So here are some words to keep an eye on, and things to look for during revisions.

To (Verb)
This is one of the biggest offenders.
Bob reached for the rifle to shoot the zombie.
To shoot implies motive, which is great, right? We want to show motive. But ah, that's the catch. We want to show motive, not tell it. And "to shoot" in this type of sentence is telling. We don't see Bob shoot the zombie, or even decide to soot it, we tell the reader that he plans to do it. Odds are the next line in this scene will be something shown.
Bob reached for the rifle to shoot the zombie. The barrel flashed and a deafening bang shook the windows.
Nice and shown there. But since we showed the rifle going off, did we really need the "to shoot" part? Nope.
Bob reached for the rifle. The barrel flashed and a deafening bang shook the windows.
It still reads a little clunky, because that sense of motive is gone. We get a taste of it since Bob reached for the rifle, and our first instinct was to say why (hence the to shoot part in the first draft), so let's add motive back. But let's do it in a ways that shows, not tells.
Bob reached for the rifle and took aim at the zombie's head, right between its blood-shot eyes. The barrel flashed and a deafening bang shook the windows.
That's so much better, isn't it? Taking aim shows Bob's intention. And the internal "right between its blood-shot eyes" is Bob's judgment, tightening your POV and adding a personal closeness.

When
Here's another word that can indicate told prose.
When Bob saw the zombie, he ran for the cabin. (or worse) Bob ran for the cabin when he saw the zombie.
This little teller not only keeps you distanced from your POV, but in version two, you put the response before the stimulus, so readers see what Bob does before the know why he decided to do it. That's a good way to confuse your reader. "When" used in these ways is the author explaining why Bob acted instead of showing the reader Bob making that decision and then acting on it. The goal is to allow the reader to get the why by observing the what.
A zombie lurched toward him. "Braaaiiinss!"
Bob ran for the cabin.
As
As can be such a useful tool, but it can also muck things up, because it works a lot like "when" does.
Bob ran for the cabin as the zombie swung at his head.
On first glance, this looks perfectly fine, right? But look at the two pieces and think about it. "As" implies they do the thing at the same time. Bob does X as the zombie does Y. But the zombie swinging at Bob's head is what makes him run for the cabin. So Bob can't run at the same time the zombie is swinging, because he hasn't made the decision to run until the zombie swings. (One note here. If the zombie has been attacking before this and this swing is one in several swings, then it's plausible Bob anticipates it coming as can run as it swings)

In (emotion)
This is another great red flag that you're telling how something is done rather than showing the outward signs of it. "In (emotion)" is another type of explanation.
The zombie burst through the window. Bob screamed in fear.
Not only is this redundant (screaming is usually caused by fear in this situation), it doesn't give any additional information or strengthen the verb, screamed.
The zombie burst through the window. Bob screamed, his knees buckling beneath him.
Knees buckling is a good "fear" indicator. Better still, it shows how the sudden appearance of a zombie affects Bob on a physical level.

Could See
One of the easiest told clean ups are sentences where your narrator "could see something," and then goes on to tell us what he saw. "Noticed" can also trip you up this way, so be sure than when using noticed, it's for something that is eye catching. It's not a synonym for saw.
A twig snapped. Bob turned around. He could see a zombie lumbering toward the cabin.
If Bob is our narrator, then by definition, everything he describes is something he sees, hears, feels, smells, says, thinks, right? We don't have to be told he sees it if he tells us what it looks like. (And by the way, "could see/hear/smell/feel" can also be applied here)
A twig snapped. Bob turned around. A zombie lumbered toward the cabin.
The Sound of
The second cousin of the "could see" is the "sound of." It tells for all the same reasons.
The sound of a rifle shot echoed through the valley.
This one is particularly sneaky, because that sentence reads just fine. And sometimes, it is just fine. But telling something there's a sound of a rifle shot is still telling.
The crack of a rifle shot echoed through the valley.
One word change, doesn't this read stronger? Can't you hear that crack?

Realized
This one is the trickiest of them all, because many times, realized is the right word and it works as intended. But often, it's used to explain how a POV character came to a conclusion. It's that explanation that tells.
A door creaked, and Bob realized he'd forgotten to lock the back door.
This tells me what Bob realized. It doesn't show him realizing it.
A door creaked. Bob spun around, heart racing. Oh crap, the back door!
Triple Threats
The thing about these little tell words, is that they often gang up on you. They're descriptive because you as the author see so much more in them, so you don't always notice they aren't saying much. Then you realize you're explaining everything and there's no actual story going on.
Bob screamed in pain when the Zombie clawed his leg.
Do we feel Bob's pain here? No, we're told the cause of his screaming. But we also see the reason -- the zombie claw. And lookie there... a when! These two often go hand in hand. And worse still, a response before the stimulus. See how easy it is for these little buggers to gang up on you?
The zombie tore through his pants, sinking its broken fingernail deep into his calf. Bob screamed, burning pain shooting up his leg.
Isn't that a lot more exciting? Same idea, but now you have details and action that bring it to life.

Will hunting and editing these little words take time? You betcha. But in the end, you'll have a much better story that shows instead of tells. Better still, you'll train yourself to identify and catch these suckers before they muck up your story.

EDIT: One thought I had late last night... "Don't tell" is a huge stick hanging over our heads, but sometimes, a little telling here and there is fine. Don't look at a list like this and think you have to eliminate every last one of them from your novel. Like everything else, whatever serves the story is what's best. If something jars the reader out of the narrative or makes them feel detached and disinterested, change it. If it doesn't do that and the reader stays hooked and immersed in the story, you're golden.

34 comments:

  1. What a great list of things to watch out for on edits - thanks!

    And I agree, sometimes "telling" is the right thing, but more often than not, it's best to show.

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  2. Wow! I've read a lot of helpful articles/blogs on writing and I must say this one just moved to the top of my list!

    You took the "show, don't tell" problem every writer faces and simplified it better than I've ever seen. And you included examples!

    Thanks so much for a great post!

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  3. Thanks for this post! The examples you used really helped me understand how to build a better sentence.

    I’ve learned so much from you. Thank you.

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  4. Deciding when to tell and when to show can directly influence the pacing of the scene. It's knowing which is the better approach that makes writing a challenge!

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  5. Thank you so much for a great post. This is one of my biggest problems, that and passive voice sneaking up on me.

    And there's another question, when is was okay? :)

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  6. Killer, Janice! What great advice. You are so generous :) Thank you.

    Dario

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  7. Amazing! I weeded out a lot of "telling" in my novel already, but somehow you gave me more things to look for! Thanks much.

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  8. This is so seriously helpful - I've read TONS of books on writing but here you captured some incredibly important stuff in just one blog post. I actually printed it and taped it to the wall in front of my desk. THANK YOU THANK YOU

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  9. Excellent article. I definitely have a tendcy to tell instead of show but wasn't sure what to look for in editing. Thank you.

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  10. Great examples of how to eliminate these words. You are right it's tedious to search for them, but I've eliminated tons of words in my manuscript by using your list of words to watch for, which includes most of these.

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  11. Great post! Thanks!

    -o-

    I have to say, Margo, I have found much more cumulative benefit from [free] blog posts than from the many books I have read on writing. It may be counterintuitive, but my current hypothesis is that the blog advice is better *because* it's free: If I'm writing a book on writing, I have a financial motivation to fill pages, whether or not I really have something inspired to say. When authors put advice up for free on their blogs, there isn't much of a financial motivation, so I have to think it's because they feel moved to share what has really been useful for them.

    -o-

    My own longtime bugaboo, along the lines of "realized," is "it occurred to ___ that . . . ." It's passive, it's telly, ugh! I think the reason it's such a tempting construction to me is that the process of realizing things is itself passive, in a way. I can control what I think about, and what I research, but not whether or not it bears fruit. I guess the trick is to not attempt to show the thinking, but just the result, as in, "It didn't add up, unless--that was it! The power must have gone out, and that was why the milk had spoiled."

    Or, you know, something.

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  12. More tightening!

    "Bob reached for the rifle and took aim at the zombie's head, right between its blood-shot eyes."

    Better -

    "Bob reached for the rifle and took aim right between the zombie's blood-shot eyes."

    I presume the zombie's eyes are on the head, so it's implied :)

    And one more:

    "The zombie burst through the window. Bob screamed, his knees buckling beneath him."

    better -

    "The zombie burst through the window. Bob screamed and his knees buckled."

    Again, I am assuming that Bob's knees are, normally when standing, underneath him :)

    This is a good entry, I hope more writers read it and utilize the message.

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  13. Great post, Janice!

    Thanks for sharing :)

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  14. This is a helpful post. Thanks.

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  15. Hey David, sometimes the tightest way to say something doesn't fit the narrator's voice. And frankly, your suggestion on the buckling knees would be understood by some readers as "he screamed then his knees buckled", so Ms. Hardy's original line was clearer.

    It's also possible to cram too much data into too few words and thereby confuse readers.

    Ms. Hardy, a lot of these are things I tend to notice, myself, when a sentence strikes me as "off". :) Some of these I've known I didn't like, but I couldn't describe why. Thanks for putting it in words.

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  17. Ugh. Another one I just ran across in my writing today: "he found himself . . ." as in "he found himself wishing . . . " or "he found himself wanting to . . ." or "he found himself thinking about . . . "

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  18. So many times I've seen the "show don't tell" advice, yet very few times has it been illustrated as effectively and simply as you do here. Thanks very much!

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  19. Ronald J. McIsaacApr 30, 2010, 1:00:00 AM

    Your blog is getting better with each passing month. Thanks, teach. I'd like to see you publish your "on writings" down the road.

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  20. Thanks David, just another great example of how you can always edit and tighten work, especially when it's a first draft type sentence like those were.

    Ronald, I've been toying with the idea of putting together some little ebooks on topics. Haven't been able to do more than think about it though! When Shifter 3 is done I can investigate that more.

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  21. Thanks Janice. One of the most informative and helpful articles I've ever read on showing instead of telling. Excellent. Thank you.

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  22. I'm so looking forward to applying some of this advice to my editing. I'm gonna get a good laugh out my lazy cliches!

    Thanks for a simple yet effective set of blog posts about editing. They're so helpful!

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  23. One of the best show vs. tell guides ever. Elegantly put.

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  24. Hi Janice,
    l loved this post, it was so helpful. I talked about it in my blog and provided a link back to here. I hope that was okay. I'm new at this blogging thing.

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  25. This link is going on my blog asap! I'm not even sure how I found you, but the post is tremendously helpful. Thanks.

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  26. I'm bookmarking this so I can come back to it later when revising. This is a great "show-not-tell" guide.

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  27. So awesome. I took notes - no joke. I would always switch words around when the sentence didn't read right, but this is the kind of specific info I needed to speed up my rewriting process. Knowing my problems - half the problem. Thanks so much!

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  28. Great post. Thanks. However, I'm not sure "in" is a noun in this case (in fear). I think it is a preposition, defined as:

    - expressing a state or condition (often followed by a noun without a determiner)
    e.g "to be in love"

    In your example 'in fear" - fear is a noun.

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    Replies
    1. Eek, I thought I had fixed that one years ago. Thanks for pointing it out!

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  30. Thank you for the clearest picture of showing vs. telling that I have ever seen. The red flags make it so much easier to identify the difference between the two! i have a lot of work to do!! Thanks again!

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    1. Most welcome, I'm so glad you found it helpful :)

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