Wednesday, April 20

I Told You: Mental Signposts That Tell, Not Show

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the more frustrating and difficult to get right aspects of writing in the old show, don’t tell. Even within the “rules” there are still exceptions and places where it’s fine to tell. One such tricky spot is the mental signpost: realized, thought, wondered, hoped, considered, prayed, etc.

What makes these guys so tough is that depending on your narrative distance, they might be appropriate for the sentence. A distant narrator might use “Bob realized” where a tight narrator wouldn’t. But they are words that pull the reader way from your POV, and any time that happens there’s a risk of the prose feeling told.

Let’s look at the most common words and how they fit into your writing (and keep in mind that “tell” is a bit subjective here. A line can tell and still read and work fine. This is about whether or not it can be made stronger):

Realized 

Unless the POV is referring to something they’d realized in the past, odds are this word will feel told. Realized isn’t a word we use when we “realize” something. We just do it.

Tell: Bob realized he didn’t have the heart to tell Jane no.

Show:
He didn’t have the heart to tell Jane no.
Or even… Bob sighed. How could he tell Jane no?

It’s also common to actually show the realization, but add on “realized” to make sure the reader gets it.

Tell:
Bob pulled the trigger. Click. He realized the gun was empty.

Yep, that’s pretty obvious. And readers will see that.

Thought 

Thought is a great middleman word. If it’s used as a tag, there’s a good chance it can go. After all, everything your POV thinks are her thoughts, so saying “she thought” is redundant. The only reason we tag the dialog with “said” is for clarity. But thought is also a word that we might use in conversation.

Tell: Maybe I’ll go check out the new band at the Bronze, see what’s what, I thought.

Show: I thought I’d go check out the new band down at the Bronze. See what’s what.

What makes the second one feel shown is that this is how the character is thinking, as this is narrative in their voice. But let’s look how that subtly changes when we shift into third person.

Lisa thought she’d go check out the new band down at the Bronze. See what was what.

Feels a little on the told side doesn’t it? The “see what was what” helps, as that has some voice to it, but the first line? Feels kinda distant. It’s not horrible, and no one would notice it that much, but it’s one spot where you have an opportunity to make the writing stronger.

To make it feel more shown, make sure the reader knows this is her thoughts. One trick: Draw attention to the character’s head before the thought. It’s like a clue to the reader that says “I’m going in her head now.”

Lisa pulled her hair into a ponytail. Maybe she’d go check out the new band down at the Bronze. See what was what.

And now we’re showing.

Wondered and Hoped 

Wondered and hoped are words that we can use because you actually do think “I wonder what’s for dinner” and “I hope it something I like.” There are still places where they can feel told, especially if they’re tucked in with a lot of other told-ish or distant prose.

Tell: Joey headed down to the kitchen, wondering what was for dinner. He liked fish sticks and hoped his mom made those tonight.

Show: Joey headed down to the kitchen, wondering what was for dinner. Maybe Mom made fish sticks.

Show: Joey headed down to the kitchen. What was for dinner? Hopefully Mom made fish sticks.

Wondered and hoped can be used in a lot of places just fine, but like thought, it’s a great spot where you can tighten you POV and flesh out your character. It allows you to show their voice better, because it’s what they’re thinking, not the author describing that they’re thinking it.

Considered 

Considered is a lot like thought. There are places where you use it as a verb, and it reads fine. But other times it’s a dialog tag or descriptive summary and it feels told.

Tell-ish:
Bob wasn’t sure about this. He considered his options. One, run out the back and hope for the best. Two, blast their way out the front door. And three, stay there and kill everything that came into the room.

This reads just fine, but the “he considered his options” tells the reader what Bob is doing, when in the next three lines we show him considering his options. Is the “he considered” line necessary? Maybe, maybe not. It’s a style issue. Used this way, it’s like saying: “He ran after her. His feet pounded on the pavement, faster and faster.” It’s not bad, but it can be made better.

Show: Bob wasn’t sure about this. Wasn’t like they had a lot of options, though. One, run out the back and hope for the best. Two, blast their way out the front door. And three, stay there and kill everything that came into the room.

Eliminate the “he considered” and suddenly this feel more shown and in Bob’s head, doesn’t it?

Prayed 

Actually stopping the story to show the prayer would most likely bog it down, so this is a great example of a word that often works better when told. Readers don’t need to see the prayer to get what’s going on.

Tell:
She watched him vanish into the night, the shotgun in his hand, and prayed he’d make it to the tower alive.

Told, but it works, doesn’t it? I can easily see this as a scene or chapter ender, because the telling actually adds to the “ooooo” factor.

Show:
She watched him vanish into the night, the shotgun in his hand. Please let him make it to the tower alive.

This also works and shows her praying.

Rule of Thumb 

If the mental signpost word is used conversationally, as in “I thought I’d run out to the store” or “She’d hoped they’d make it back okay,” then odds are it’s working and showing. It’s either part of the internalization or dialog. If it’s used as a dialog tag or description of the action (and action can mean thinking and realizing here: whatever “act” your character is taking) there’s a good chance it’s telling.

Check your mental signposts during your polishing.
  • Are they making the sentence or paragraph as strong as it can be, or just taking up space?
  • Would the section be stronger if you rewrote them for something a tad more shown?
  • Can they be eliminated entirely? (many can)
It’s the subtle tweaks that transform good writing into great writing. And don’t you want to give your story the best chance it can get?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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19 comments:

  1. Yaaaay more on telling versus showing! This is great Janice, I am going to add it to the list of words to look for.

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  2. OMG this makes so much sense! Thanks Janice.

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  3. I know I've said this before...but your grasp on POV never ceases to amaze me. This is just what I needed -- thanks!

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  4. Great post--I always have to go through my ms after the first draft and cut a bunch of these out. :)

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  5. Good stuff, thanks! One problem--I hate italics. Using them and reading them. Is it just me?

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  6. Love it, Janice! Consider this bookmarked,

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  7. There goes Bob, the zombie, again ;)

    Thanks for the reminder.

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  8. Thanks, very helpful. I've been trying to make a habit of just ripping out all my 'mental signposts', but it's hard, and it's nice to know that some of them can stay.

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  9. Thanks! This has been one of the hardest things for me to wrap my brain around, and you made it very clear. I will be able to put this information to work TODAY.

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  10. Elizabeth: When I spot them I like to share :)

    Leanne: You're welcome!

    Megan: Aw, thanks!

    Kristi: Same here. I use them for first drafts, and there are always some that get missed as I flesh things out.

    Julee: Oh no! Probably not just you. You certainly don't have to use them if you don't like them. Just make it part of the narrative. :)

    Myne: Anytime.

    Nindgos: Yay! Thanks!

    Robyn: Bob gets around. Quite a jack of all trades that guy.

    Rik: It's never all or nothing with words. If it works best where it's used, keep it :)

    Pam: Awesome! So glad it clicked for you.

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  11. Great points and "showing" :D. Thank you

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  12. Interesting! I *thought* I knew what I was doing with these, but might need to rethink. :)

    p.s., are you on Twitter? I retweet you all the time, but haven't found your profile!

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  13. Jacqvern: Most welcome!

    Laura: I am indeed. @Janice_Hardy.

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  14. D'oh! Don't know why I couldn't find you! Found you now. (Loved today's post about sex -- *blush*).

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  15. Wait, actually I do know why... can you put a Twitter link on your blog somewhere? That's where I tried to find you and couldn't.

    Thanks, great stuff.
    L

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  16. Trying to get the link up there now but the widget seems to be broken and my attempts at getting other images has failed. I might have to call in the tech-guru, but then I'll be all embarrassed and stuff :) I'll give it one more go and call for help.

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  17. Your grasp on these subtleties is awe-inspiring! :) e

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  18. Thanks e! Was a long time coming, and a lot of bad sentences written before I got there :)

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