Monday, May 17

Real Life Diagnostics: Show vs. Tell

We have our first victim...er...volunteer for the public diagnostics. This is a good sample to start with, because it combines show vs tell and POV. These kinds of "telling" are pretty common in first drafts, and easy to fix once you train yourself to spot them and shift your thinking to your POV.

Problem:
My hardest thing is showing vs. telling. You posted a wonderful piece on that not too long ago. My trouble is finding the balance between writing around the telling words and when is it okay to use them. This is my first draft from my WIP. I totally agree that it needs to be re-written, but when is it okay?

The balance between show and tell can be hard, because sometimes we need to tell a little for clarity. My personal rule of thumb on this: If you need to tell, make sure it's in the POV's voice. As long as it's something your POV would think/say/wonder, it usually flows seamlessly with the text. It's the bits that sound like the author explaining something that jump out at readers. A strong and solid POV can fix darn near any problem.

Also, when describing action, put yourself in the POV's shoes looking out, not the author's shoes looking in. (This sample is an excellent example for this, and makes a good teaching tool). It's easy to describe a scene as we see it in our head. But it can end up reading like we were telling our friends how we planned to write the scene.

Since this is our first diagnostic, let me mention a few ground rules. The goal is to focus on the one thing the writer asked about, and to help explain how to handle that issue. I'm not critiquing the work, or suggesting ways to improve it beyond the original question. My edits are not polished words and are designed to illustrate the kinds of thing I'm talking about so the author (and readers) can apply the ideas to their own work. (I want to help folks improve, not tell you how to write your scenes). The author's revised words will be so much better than anything I'll come up with.

I'd also like everyone to keep in mind that it takes major guts to offer your work up to the public like this, and those doing it know there's an issue with it (that's the whole point in giving it to me to diagnose), so please refrain from critiquing the work in the comments section as if it were final draft or anything. If you have a suggestion or question that pertains directly to the question and topic of the post, feel free to comment.

Original Passage:

She had never wished so hard in her life for her father or one of her brothers to come along. I don’t care how bad Papa whops me when I get home, just someone come soon. But no one was going to show up in time. Not even her favorite older brother who always seemed to know when she was in trouble. Jaek where are you?

A wolf jumped for her throat. Making a mad grab, she caught it by its fur and fell backwards into the snow. Jaws snapped inches from her face. The wolves attacked in a snarling mass. One bit through her boot and into her foot, worrying the thick leather. She screamed as another bit into her shoulder, playing tug-of-war in the snow; its growling loud in her ear. Others bit at her wherever they could, mauling her through thick fur coat and pants. The ground was bloody slush.

Asaro concentrated on the wolf in front of her. She was nose to nose with it, staring into its yellow eyes. She wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer. She hurt too much. She was bleeding too much. Her arms trembled with strain. Papa! Jaek! Somebody, anybody! Help!
She screamed again as the wolf at her shoulder bit through the big joint collapsing her arm. Something in the back of her brain unfolded and took over. She was falling and falling into yellow eyes. The world turned and twisted. She screamed high and shrill as pain ripped through her.

I'm going to make a huge assumption here and look at this as if the POV is the narrator. This is third person limited, with Asaro as the POV telling the story. Because if this was third omni, it would be handled differently. My comments are in purple.

First para: (A) She had never wished so hard in her life for her father or one of her brothers to come along. I don’t care how bad Papa whops me when I get home, just someone come soon. (B) But no one was going to show up in time. Not even her favorite older brother who always seemed to know when she was in trouble. Jaek where are you?

A) She had never wished so hard in her life for her father or one of her brothers to come along. I don’t care how bad Papa whops me when I get home, just someone come soon.

The first line could easily either be the narrator thinking or the author explaining. However, the next line shows her doing exactly what that first line said she was doing, which makes that first line feels more told in comparison. Try flipping the lines.

I don’t care how bad Papa whops me when I get home, just someone come soon. She had never wished so hard in her life for her father or one of her brothers to come along.

Now the ambiguous line feels more like part of the POV's internalization, re-emphasizing what we see her wishing. A trick to make something feel more "in the head" of your POV is to have them think, say, or touch their head (she brushed her hair out of her eyes) before internalization. It effectively works as a tag that says "hey reader, my POV is still thinking, 'kay?"

B) But no one was going to show up in time. Not even her favorite older brother who always seemed to know when she was in trouble. Jaek where are you?

The "But no one..." line could be author or narrator. A lot of it is going to depend on how you've established your narrator's voice. Readers will also assume any internal sounding thought is going to be the POV of that scene, unless it's something that doesn't feel like what that character would think. We know from the first two lines of the para that the POV expects her family to come along. So she might think about a specific person, as she does in the "Jaek..." line. You could also do something like:

They wouldn't show up in time.

Using "they" puts it in her head so it's her thinking "that family she just mentioned" wouldn't show up.

The next line falls more into the told, because she probably wouldn't think of Jaek as "her favorite older brother." That's info the author wants to convey. Try shifting it into the POV's head and stating it as she would.

Not even Jaek, who always seemed to know when she was in trouble.
Jaek where are you?

Revision Suggestion:

I don’t care how bad Papa whops me when I get home, just someone come soon. She had never wished so hard in her life for her father or one of her brothers to come along. They wouldn't show up in time. Not even Jaek, who always seemed to know when she was in trouble. Jaek where are you?

Second Para: (A) A wolf jumped for her throat. Making a mad grab, she caught it by its fur and fell backwards into the snow. (B) Jaws snapped inches from her face. (C) The wolves attacked in a snarling mass. (D) One bit through her boot and into her foot, worrying the thick leather. (E) She screamed as another bit into her shoulder, playing tug-of-war in the snow; its growling loud in her ear. (F) Others bit at her wherever they could, mauling her through thick fur coat and pants. (G) The ground was bloody slush.

This para is a fantastic opportunity in the making. Right now, bits read like the author describing the scene from the outside. But the events in this one para offer tremendous potential for a chilling scene with just a simple shift in whose eyes the author looks out of. Move the details to the POV instead of the author, and this will scare folks.

A) A wolf jumped for her throat. Making a mad grab, she caught it by its fur and fell backwards into the snow.

This describes the action from the outside looking in. It's the "making a mad grab" that does it. "making" is the verb, not the grabbing. "A mad grab" isn't the action. Subtle difference, but it changes the feel of a sentence.

Look for a strong verb that represents (and thus shows) "making a mad grab."Or just cut the phrase entirely and show the action. I'm going to guess the "grab" line ended up this way because the author didn't want two "she did this and she did that" sentences in a row. Good instincts there, as that would make this sentence awkward.

She flailed toward the wolf. She caught it by its fur and fell backwards into the snow. (ick)

She caught it by its fur and fell backwards into the snow.

It jumped. She caught. I think it's fine to connect those two that way and the reader won't be left behind wondering what happened.


B) Jaws snapped inches from her face.

This is a great shown line. It feels right there in the action. Snapped is a fantastic verb here.

C) The wolves attacked in a snarling mass.

This tells the scene from the outside. Notice that "in" there? That's the author explaining how the wolves attacked: in a snarling mass. Is the girl being attacked going to describe it this way? Probably not. Try a strong verb that focus in the thing being done.

The wolves attacked, snarling. Or: Snarling wolves attacked.

But this still feels a little told, because it's telling the wolves attacked, not giving good details to bring the action alive. Another trick to determine if something is told or not, is to act it out. Try to act out attack. Go ahead, stand up and do it. Can't can you? Oh sure, you can swing your fists, charge forward, kick, but those aren't the word "attack." They're ways in which you can attack. (See the difference there?) "Bob attacked" is different from "Bob swung his fists, charged forward, kicked."

D) One bit through her boot and into her foot, worrying the thick leather.

The "worrying the thick leather" is a good red flag here. That's an outside looking in type description. If it's your foot being chewed on is that a detail you're gong to notice, or phrase in that way? Odds are it'll be more like "Ahhhhh!!! It's eating my foot!!!!"

E) She screamed as another bit into her shoulder, playing tug-of-war in the snow; its growling loud in her ear.

Same thing here. Little red flags: She screams before we see why. Granted, she probably would be screaming before this, but it says "as" another bit... which implies this is the stimulus that caused the scream. This is the author telling the reader why she screams, not showing an action (the bite) and the the reaction (the scream) and letting the reader figure out why. "Playing tug-of-war in the snow" is like the worrying leather. It's not a detail someone getting mauled is likely to use. It's a detail someone telling you about someone getting mauled would use.

F) Others bit at her wherever they could, mauling her through thick fur coat and pants.

By now, I bet you can look at this and say, yep, that's explaining the scene, not showing the actions that make up the scene. "wherever they could" is outside looking in. The narrator is not going to feel like the bites are any old place. "Mauling" is like attacked, and more specific details would put the reader right there in the POV's head.

G) The ground was bloody slush.

The detachment here is where the problem is, because there's no sense of where this detail is coming from, narrator or author. You want readers to feel as if they're on that ground being mauled. Strong verbs, specific details, personal experience is what'll make this cringe-worthy and awesome.

Imagine being her. There's a wolf chewing on your foot and suddenly there's a head by your shoulder, hot breath in your face, teeth piercing your skin. What do you do? What do you think? What words can be used to put the reader right there in the snow with her?


Revision Suggestions:

A wolf lunged at her throat. She grabbed its fur and they fell backwards into the snow. Jaws snapped inches from her face.

I'm going to die.

Another wolf tore through her boot and into her foot. She screamed, pain shooting up her leg. More teeth pierced her shoulder, growling loud in her ear. Cold air on her arm, then hot breath and more pain as teeth ripped open her thick fur coat.

She searched for a rock, a branch, anything to fight them with. The ground was icy slush.

Same paragraph, same basic things, but now with specific details that the girl in the snow would likely see and feel and even do.

Third Para: (A) Asaro concentrated on the wolf in front of her. She was nose to nose with it, staring into its yellow eyes. (B) She wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer. She hurt too much. She was bleeding too much. Her arms trembled with strain. Papa! Jaek! Somebody, anybody! Help! (C) She screamed again as the wolf at her shoulder bit through the big joint collapsing her arm. (D) Something in the back of her brain unfolded and took over. She was falling and falling into yellow eyes. The world turned and twisted. She screamed high and shrill as pain ripped through her.

(A) Asaro concentrated on the wolf in front of her. She was nose to nose with it, staring into its yellow eyes.

Is this Asaro or the author? The first line feels detached because of the previous para where we see Asaro being mauled. She has multiple wolves chewing on her by now. "Concentrated" doesn't feel like a verb the POV would use in this situation. Try a verb that reminds readers that she's been holding the wolf this whole time and make it part of the ongoing struggle. Especially since "She was..." suggests she's concentrating on it.

Asaro struggled with the wolf in front of her. She was nose to nose with it, staring into its yellow eyes.

(B) She wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer. She hurt too much. She was bleeding too much. Her arms trembled with the strain. Papa! Jaek! Somebody, anybody! Help!

She hurt and she was bleeding feel told to me, because the narrator seems too rational about describing her situation. It feels external rather than internal, describing a general sense of being instead of specific details felt at that moment that show her hurting, bleeding and make her think she can't hold on much longer. Using "with strain" tells, because it explains why her arms tremble, it doesn't show them trembling and let the reader figure out why from the other details. Flipping these sentences would further reinforce that the trembling is why she wasn't able to hold the wolf back much longer. Stimulus and response.

Her aching arms trembled, blood running down her skin. (action that makes her think...) She wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer. (Which causes her to say...) "Papa! Jaek! Somebody, anybody! Help!"

Changing this thought to dialog might work nicely. Her lying in the snow screaming for help is a definite "show."


(C) She screamed again as the wolf at her shoulder bit through the big joint collapsing her arm.

This externally describes the action as a whole, not the pieces that make up the action. She's dying, being ripped apart. She'd feel the pain, hear the noises, not convey it in such a clinical way. Also, look at the three paragraphs. She's screamed quite a few times, and wolves have bit quite a few times. That's another clue to watch out for that a section might be told. Similar vague imagery that implies what's in your head, but doesn't actually get it on the page.

(D) Something in the back of her brain unfolded and took over. She was falling and falling into yellow eyes. The world turned and twisted. She screamed high and shrill as pain ripped through her.

We're told "something happens", but we don't see what that is or what it means. "Was falling" feels told here, describing it from the outside and saying what she "was doing" as if you were watching. "The world..." could be her thinking this, but there's no internalization to really know if this is the POV or the author. What does the POV feel here? Her emotions are key to making the passage feel real, and overall that's what's missing from this scene. There's no sense of Asaro thinking or doing anything, so the lines that could be either told or shown (depending on whose lines they are, author or POV) feel told without her emotions coloring the words and making them hers.

Revsion Suggestions:

Asaro struggled with the wolf in front of her. She was nose to nose with it, staring into its yellow eyes. Her aching arms trembled, blood running down her skin. She wasn’t going to be able to hold it much longer.

"Papa! Jaek! Somebody, anybody! Help!"

Teeth crushed her shoulder and her arm went limp. She wailed, the wolf inches from her face. Something in the back of her brain unfolded and took over. It's over, stop struggling, just let go. She fell into yellow eyes. The world turned and twisted. She surrendered to those eyes as pain ripped through her.

When describing action, getting in little moments to remind the reader that the words belong to the POV and not the author go a long way toward showing a scene versus telling it.

There's a lot of good in a piece like this. The author knows exactly what happens and the events are chilling and horrible. If your first drafts look like this, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it, so don't stress. It's a great first step to figuring out the scene, and fleshing it out is what editing is for. It won't be hard to nudge this into a great scene.

Shift into the head of the narrator. Take the told parts and the explanations of the action and think about what it would feel like to be in that position. Look for concrete details. Look for words that are scary to reinforce the action. Piercing, cutting, slicing, snarling, growling, etc.

Think in terms of what the POV does to achieve a certain goal, not what happens overall. This isn't a scene where a girl gets mauled by wolves, it's a scene where a girl tries to survive getting mauled by wolves, right? In one version, she lays there and readers are told what happens to her (external), in the other, she's acting to save herself and this is what she does as they attack (internal).

What we put around a sentence can nudge it toward show or tell. This example had several sentences that could have easily been positioned to feel shown with a solidly grounded POV lead in. Things that make it clear the stated information is the character thinking it, not the author explaining it. And in a scene like this, knowing how the narrator is feeling and what's going through their mind really helps put a reader there.

I hope this is helpful to both the author, and those who have similar struggles with the same issue.

Oh, if the author is up for it, I'd happily show the new version to see how they revised. (but no pressure if they don't want to)

21 comments:

  1. Keep up the good work! I invite you to see my post, I hope you will find interesting too.

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  2. Thanks so much for this. What an awesome teaching tool! Thanks to the writer who volunteered this piece. Very brave.

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  3. Thanks for the analysis (and to the author who was willing to share). It makes me think about my own writing in a completely different way.

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  4. Hi, I'm your first victim...um, volunteer.

    Thanks for the great feed back. I totally appreciate it. This is the fine tuning that I need to learn; the hardest part being recognizing it in the first place. I totally agree with your assessment and I'd love to re-post my changes.

    I posted a bit of another section on my LJ last week and got some feed back on that. I'm of the opinion that if you don't put it out there, you don't learn nuthin :)

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  5. Wow what a great workout session here! Thanks for posting so we can all learn!

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  6. Great insight...things I hadn't really considered before. Thank you! :)

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  7. Great post; very instructive. Thanks also to the brave volunteer >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  8. Thanks Amanda for being the volunteer. I enjoyed your passage even before the revisions. I struggle with this too and found Janice's revisions helpful.

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  9. Thanks, Natalie. Let's hope the the revision is even better :)

    I linked back to this off of my LiveJournal.

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  10. Thanks for volunteering, Amanda, and thanks, Ms. Hardy, for taking the time to revise it! (I know how long that takes.)

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  11. Wow - that was great. Loved the scene & the comments. Really helps us see how to analyze and change a scene. Thanks so much!

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  12. Wow, that really helps me to see what to do in my own work. I'm glad you volunteered, Amanda. That's one of my problem areas, too.

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  13. WOW, great idea Janice, you showing us through something like this makes a huge difference. Thank you! Bravo brave volunteer. Its an interesting passage. I hope we get more of these as I find them very helpful.

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  14. Excellent stuff, Janice. I learned a great deal

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  15. Thanks all, and double thanks to Amanda for allowing me to fiddle with her work :)I'm glad everyone found it helpful.

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  16. I fell between the lines of this and engorged myself on the lesson here. Thank you! This explained so much. I'm looking at my writing in a whole new way. (Hugs)Indigo

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  17. Janice, why did you delete my two comments? Scalzi and Stross never delete my comments. Where do you live, Arizona? So, if I post anonymously, you'll delete it, without question, that it? So, can I buy your books without your permission, or not?

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  18. My apologies, I thought they were spam. I have no problem with anonymous postings, but those looked suspicious with the links to what looked like ad sites prominently displayed, and very simple generic comments on both here and my other blog in the same minute, and no profile info (those three things said spam to me). I won't do it again if you're a real reader making real comments.

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  19. Thanks for those, Janice. "Show, don't tell" is not only the commonest piece of writing advice, but also the trickiest to follow and parse in the trenches. Great stuff: you have a gift for clarity and cutting to the heart of an issue.

    Kudos also to Amanda for her bravery!

    Dario

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  20. This is a huge help! It really made me think about things in a different way. Thank you so much for doing this, Janice, and for Amanda for offering her work.

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  21. Wow. Thank you for this very helpful post. We often hear about showing and not telling, but to see very specific examples like this is instructive. I'm bookmarking this!

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