Thursday, April 28

Real Life Diagnostic: Am I Showing or Telling?

Today’s diagnostic is a perennial favorite: show vs tell. It’s probably one of the hardest things to really get in writing and has been the bane of writers everywhere.

The writer asks…
Am I showing or telling?
Let’s go find out.

Original Text:
Taggert’s eyes made contact with hers as he walked forward. Other girls tried to capture his attention as he passed by, but he never took his eyes off Jocelyn. She felt frozen, like a leaf trapped by frost that lost its ability to stir in the wind, and whether by panic or fascination she didn’t know. Her feet wouldn’t move and she remained unable to pull her eyes from his. Her heart beat faster with each approaching step. She was completely unable to prevent her physical reaction to him no matter how badly she tried. Jocelyn became irritated with herself. Why couldn’t she ignore him like she did so many other men? His approach seemed unreasonably slow and when he finally reached her, she knew her heart couldn’t beat any swifter.

“Did you enjoy the matches?” his tone disarmingly casual.

“Yes, they were entertaining,” she managed, praying she sounded nonchalant and feeling anything but.

He finally broke eye contact and turned to look at the arena, now filled with boys and their sticks engaged in their own mini battles.

“I’ve noticed,” he began, “these little events sometimes develop…unusual consequences.” He turned and watched her, measuring her reaction.

“I’m not sure I understand,” she answered genuinely confused.

His brown eyes twinkled, and she noticed for the first time the little creases in the corner of his eyes. She immediately liked them.

My Thoughts:
I’m going to break this down line by line. As always, this is just my opinion and tastes may vary. Ignore whatever doesn't work for you. My comments in purple.

Taggert’s eyes made contact with hers as he walked forward. Eyes are a funny thing. We often use them to describe how we look at each other, so they wind up in some strange circumstances. Here, the eyes are “making contact,” which sounds like they literally touch. It’s not the eyes that connect, it the stare, or the gaze. The bold part feels a little told, only because it doesn’t relate to the POV. “Walked forward” is describing something from the outside, not being inside the POV’s head. It doesn’t center the action on anyone. Try “eyes met” or “gaze met” and “walk toward her” or “waked closer.”

Other girls tried to capture his attention as he passed by, but he never took his eyes off Jocelyn. The bold parts feel a little told-ish. It’s the “tried to” that tells, and the reference to the POV in the third person that makes it feel more distant. If Jocelyn was experiencing this, it would be more personal and centered on her. But it’s one of those tell examples that can work just fine because you don’t always need to fully describe something that doesn’t matter in the big picture. It’s plausible that Jocelyn can tell what the girls are trying to do by watching them. She just didn’t bother showing us what she saw then do.

She felt frozen, like a leaf trapped by frost that lost its ability to stir in the wind, and whether by panic or fascination she didn’t know. The bold part feels a bit told because I’m not getting a sense that it’s her thinking this, but an outsider going into the simile. The “felt” could go either way. If it’s her thinking about how she feels frozen, it’s showing. If it’s a description of her feelings, it’s telling.

Her feet wouldn’t move and she remained unable to pull her eyes from his. Same here. This doesn’t sound like what a person feeling this would describe it. Try “she couldn’t pull.”

Her heart beat faster with each approaching step. This feels shown.

She was completely unable to prevent her physical reaction to him no matter how badly she tried. This feels told because it’s outside looking in. If she were in the moment, she probably wouldn’t be thinking about how she couldn’t prevent a reaction. She feel is, and then react to feeling it.

Jocelyn became irritated with herself. This feels told. It’s outside explaining what happens, not showing her irritation. Try something that implies irritation, like a frown or a scowl. That would transition well into the internalization.

Why couldn’t she ignore him like she did so many other men? This feels shown.

His approach seemed unreasonably slow and when he finally reached her, she knew her heart couldn’t beat any swifter. The bold feels told because it’s explaining from the outside. You can probably get away with “when he finally reached her” if you’ve shown her impatience at how slow he was going, though. It would be in her voice, and something she might think. The “she knew” explains what she knows. Try “her heart couldn’t beat any swifter.”

“Did you enjoy the matches?” his tone disarmingly casual. Think you’re missing a “he said” here. While most times an adverb is a tell, it works here because this is her judgment of how he sounds.

“Yes, they were entertaining,” she managed, praying she sounded nonchalant and feeling anything but. The bold feels borderline told. We never see her stumbling to speak, or having trouble speaking, so “managed” here feels out of place. But if we saw her struggling, then this would fit just fine.

He finally broke eye contact and turned to look at the arena, now filled with boys and their sticks engaged in their own mini battles. The “to look” feels told (or a POV shift) because it suggests motive, and she wouldn’t know why he turned or what he was looking at. Try “and looked.” The “finally” has the same issue as “managed,” since we never see her wish he’d break eye contact. “Finally” could be her thought (as in, oh finally) or an outside description to denote the passage of time. He thought feels shown, outside passage of time feels told.

“I’ve noticed,” he began, “these little events sometimes develop…unusual consequences.” He turned and watched her, measuring her reaction. The bold feels told (or a POV shift) because this is someone besides her deciding this. She doesn’t know why he’s watching her.

“I’m not sure I understand,” she answered genuinely confused. The bold feels borderline, but could work depending on the situation. Here it feels more told because there’s nothing else to show her confusion and the passage relies on this to explain it. If this were followed up by some internalization to continue the confusion, it might be fine. Though if you had the right internalization you wouldn’t need it at all.

His brown eyes twinkled, and she noticed for the first time the little creases in the corner of his eyes. She immediately liked them. The bold feels told because how would she know this is the first time she notices this? That suggests an awareness of other times she’s noticed this. She’d just see the creases and react to them. "She noticed the little creases..."

Revision Suggestions:
I sense the reason behind the told-ish moments is due to the POV. I don’t feel solid in Jocelyn’s head yet, so what she feels and describes seems outside looking in. It’s someone describing the action as they see it, not her feeling it as it happens. I’d suggest getting more inside her head and looking at this same situation through her eyes, describing what she sees and feels in her own words and voice. That will probably shift everything to show.

The author also might try a little more internalization to get across how Jocelyn is feeling and what’s going through her head during this exchange. Internalization is a great tool for showing, as it forces us to think about how the POV is seeing/feel/thinking about things. It also helps keeps the narrative in the POV’s voice, so even the occasional told line feels like something the POV is thinking, not author commentary.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this piece for me to pick at. I hope they, and everyone else struggling with show don’t tell, finds this helpful.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines. 

Author's Revision:

Taggert’s gaze made contact with Jocelyn’s as he walked toward her.

Is he coming over to me? She casually looked side to side, the girls he passed tried to capture his attention, but he never took his eyes off Jocelyn. She felt frozen and whether by panic or fascination she couldn’t quite tell. Her feet wouldn’t move and she couldn’t pull her eyes from his. The use of the name here pulls this away from her POV a bit. “Her” would bring it tight again. You’re showing what she sees, so think of this as looking out through her eyes.

Stop it. Stop it. She scolded her quickly beating heart. She breathed deeply then pushed the breath out slowly, but her heart still sped. In early drafts it doesn’t matter, but in the final be wary of three adverbs so close together.

Well that didn’t help. She scowled, irritated with her physical reaction. Still telling here. But you’ve shown it by what she says and does, so you can just cut it.

He is only walking, just ignore him. Focus on something else. But she couldn’t focus on anything but his unreasonably slow approach. When he finally reached her, her heart was galloping. Same here. You’ve shown her focusing on his approached and how she feels about that, so you don’t need to tell us she’s doing this. The last line feels a bit told in context, but you could make it more in her POV by italicizing finally. When he finally reached her. Makes it a little more in her voice.

“Did you enjoy the matches?” he asked, his tone disarmingly casual.

“Yes, they were entertaining,” she said, praying she sounded nonchalant and feeling anything but. Be wary of two dialog tags in a row with the same format as these two lines. “he asked, description of how” and “she said, description of how.” On their own both work, but together like this can sound repetitious. Perhaps just say “She prayed that sounded...” or even show what she’s really thinking while trying to sound nonchalant.

He broke eye contact and turned looking at the arena, now filled with boys and their sticks engaged in their own mini battles. Typo? Try turned toward the arena.

“I’ve noticed,” he began, “these little events sometimes develop…unusual consequences.” He cocked one eyebrow and smiled.

“I’m not sure I understand,” she answered. This is her POV so you don’t have to tag every line. Only tag when you need to make it clear who is speaking or you need to show them doing something.

His brown eyes twinkled, and she noticed the little creases in the corner of his eyes. She immediately liked them. Oh, you are going to be trouble for me.

You’re showing better than the last version, though there are still a few lines that could be tweaked further. The italicized thoughts are a good start, and you might also try them as plain internalization, like, “Oh, he was going to be trouble for sure.”

Nice job.

13 comments:

  1. This is genius! I hadn't realized how much telling can relate to POV--and that showing will often solidify POV. On one level, I totally got that showing will help the reader identify more with the protagonist, but this was a great way of getting that across.

    You're a genius, Janice. ;)

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  2. What a helpful post! I always worry about show v tell and if I'm doing it just right. I'll have to run a diagnostic like this on my own work.

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  3. Helpful post. I caught a number of them myself, but I also missed quite a few.

    I'm one of those people who learn really well by examples just like this one. Please do this more often!

    Thanks!

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  4. Hmm... one of the reasons I prefer to read and write in first-person POV is that I like to hear their little insights. While the action of the story can be "shown", I feel like the authors thoughts and anecdotes and opinions are almost always telling, like someone telling a story. Do you think this is true, or am I just misinterpreting what's happening when I read a 1st person?

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  5. @Amber -- after reading Janice talk about POV and internalization, when I'm writing I think of how it would sound in 1st person, then type it in 3rd (I have three viewpoints and didn't want to do multiple-first). I think it's helping me keep the voices different and use internalization instead of telling. Okay, maybe that wasn't directly related...going to stop rambling now...

    Thanks for another great post, Janice!

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  6. Janice

    Author here...Can I change this piece and resend it to you to see if I got it right? If I fix it it could be a good before and after.

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  7. Thank you for this. I prefer to write in third person and I constantly find little POV shifts in what I write. My editing is taking EONS but I know once I get the hang of it, it will come a bit easier next time. A reminder to get in the MC's head, literally visualizing being in her head looking out, helps quite a bit.

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  8. Thanks Angie for submitting it. And Janice, your critique was so helpful. I missed some of the tolds.

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  9. Kat: Aw, thanks! I think POV is the cure all for so many problems. It's my go-to tool for everything.

    Erinbrambilla: Always fun to roll up your sleeves and get into a piece. And you're always welcome to submit work to the blog, too.

    Michael: Will do :) I like examples myself.

    Amber: That's why I like first person as well. Such wonderful immediacy and sense of the person. In a great first person voice, telling doesn't feel like it because it's how that person feels about something. Third person is harder to get that feeling because there's another layer (or more) between the POV and the reader. So it's a lot easier to hear the telling because it's not in the POV's voice. But you can achieve that same insights feel with third person. You just need a nice tight narrative distance. And subtle pronounce use :)

    Megan: That's a good tip, and I can see this working well. I'm doing multiple firsts right now, but I'm wondering if it'll be better as third. I'll probably do the first chapter of both POVs in first and third and test them when I'm done.

    Angie: Absolutely. I have another RLD author who sent in revisions, so I can do both of yours and update the original posts at the same time.

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  10. Stephsco: You will get the hang of it. Everyone struggles with it. Those shifts are where you pull away and slip into telling :) Easy to fix once you spot them

    Natalie: Thanks! Some of the telling is subjective, and a lot of it depends on the context (which I tried to show, so I hope I got that across). Telling in and of itself isn't bad, and it is useful at times.

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  11. This is of huge help to me in my writing. My own perspective while writing can waiver and fall toward the telling more than showing. Thank you for this in depth analysis of what to look for!

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  12. Thank you for this post. I've read a lot of posts that talk about show vs tell but this is the first time I've seen anyone break down a piece of writing line by line and explain the differences. For visual learners like me this is the greatest thing ever.

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  13. SF Roney: Oh good. I'm glad it was useful for you ;)

    RJ: And that's why I do it :) I learn the same way.

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