Monday, July 7

Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

From the mailbag...
Do you have a post on showing while writing internalization? I'm having a hard time with this and was hoping you could help. Thanks.
When writers worry about showing, not telling, we typically think about the descriptions--the explanations of backstory, infodumps, and the mini-history lessons that "tell" readers what they need to know. But telling can also occur in a character's internalization.

I call these the emotional and motivational tells.

(Here's more on mental signposts for telling)

Emotional and motivational tells are when the author stops the story to explain what's motivating a character to act, or why that character is feeling as she's feeling. Let's check in with Bob and the gang for an example:
Bob watched Sally plan their route and realized he'd never convince her to cross town without a good reason, so he had to find one. If Jane was at the office he had to get to her. Maybe they needed something from his building? No, Sally would never buy that. But if he told there was a medical supply company on the third floor, she'd have to go check it out.

He cleared his throat. "Um, Sally? There's a medical supply company in my building. It's only a few blocks out of our way, but probably worth it."
On first glance this might look just fine. Bob is thinking about a problem with Sally and what he might do about it. But when you really look it, this is mostly a description of what the scene is going to be about. Let's look a little closer:
Bob watched Sally plan their route and realized he'd never convince her to cross town without a good reason, so he had to find one.
This is basically a summary of what Bob is about to do to resolve his goal of getting to Jane. "Bob realized" is a red flag for telling, as this explains to the reader what Bob has figured out and then states the next step in that goal. Do you actually see Bob realizing these things? No. If you were summarizing this scene in your outline, it would probably read a lot like this.
If Jane was at the office he had to get to her.
This line could be Bob thinking, or it could be the author stating the situation and again summarizing the goal and stakes. The "he had to get to her" is what makes this feel more told to me, as "get to her" lacks the emotional connection good internalization often has.
Maybe they needed something from his building?
This is a solid line of internalization. It shows him trying to figure out how to convince Sally to cross town and go to his office building.
No, Sally would never buy that.
Same here. He's debating with himself, and this is a more shown way to say "he knew he'd never convince her..." Readers can see him making that realization. He's judging his own idea as invalid based on what he knows about Sally.
But if he told there was a medical supply company on the third floor, she'd have to go check it out.
This is a tricky one, because it does indeed sound like Bob figuring out his plan. But what does Bob do next? He actually says this bit of information in the dialog, so this line will likely feel told and more like an explanation of what he's about to do.

That's where showing vs telling in internalization can get fuzzy, because there's often a fine line between a character thinking and the author summarizing the plan. There are also times when you want to state what has to be done to make sure the goal or stakes are clear for the scene. Trust your instincts and do what feels (and sounds) right to you.

(Here's more on when telling is better than showing)

So much of internalization depends on the character's voice and the writing itself. A told line mixed in with strong shown lines can work just fine, while the same line with other told prose can sound detached and explanatory.

(Here's more on crafting natural-sounding internalization)

Let's try a few tweaks with Bob's snippet and make this more shown:
Bob glanced at Sally, tracing their planned route in the opposite direction. But if Jane was at the office he could still save her! Maybe they needed something from his building? No, Sally would never buy that. She'd only backtrack for vital supplies. Food, weapons, medicine... he froze. Bandages?

"Um, Sally?" He cleared his throat. "There's a medical supply company in my building. Third floor, no real public signage, so it probably hasn't been raided yet. It's only a few blocks out of our way."
This gets the same information across to readers, but we can see Bob's thought process and how he reaches the conclusions the first example tells us. It also works as a tiny hook, because we see he's figured something out, but we don't know what his plan is until he speaks and mentions the supply company. Now we know he's trying to get Sally to go there for supplies, but what he really wants, is to see if Jane is there and save her. We also don't know if Bob is lying or not, because we don't see him mention the supply company like it was a fact, not something he just thought up. That adds a little tension to this as well.

(Here's more on how much internalization is too much)

If you're unsure if you're showing or telling in your internalization, check to see if it sounds like the character thinking or you explaining so the reader "gets it." The more explanatory it sounds, the more likely it is that it's told, not shown.

Do you have any show don't tell or internalization questions? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Such a fine line. Thank you for the article.

  2. Partly, largely, because of your website, which is so aptly named, I don't feel bad that I can't afford to go to school for writing fiction or creative writing or whatever. I can learn an entire MFA worth of stuff just on this site!! I love when you put links to related posts into your posts, as well. I sometimes follow those for an hour or so. Yours is the first blog I look at in the morning, every morning. I just wanted you to know that. I don't have anything specific to say about this post except that, of course, it's brilliant (showing and telling are always so hard - I find that I write the first way on my first go round with a scene and then change it up more like the second way when I revise) (okay so I did have something to say about this post) and tells me just the thing I need to know at this point in time. Thanks!

  3. Internalization has always been my nemesis! This article is the bomb! Ditto what knittinjen said. Dialogue has never been my problem, but the psychology of internalization after the dialogue has stopped me cold. Fiction U has taught me so much, and the links to this article were helpful as well. Thanks!

  4. This post is excellent! I write most urban fantasy and it's very common for the main character to talk about the world in first person, usually with an interesting voice.

    This is a lot harder than it looks, and it's really easy to fall into the trap where the character just tells everything, making what should be a passage deep in the character's POV feel like anything but. This is perfect, thanks!