Monday, January 11

What You Need to Know About Show, Don't Tell

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Show, don’t tell, has got to be one of the more frustrating pieces of writing advice out there. It’s ambiguous, it changes depending on the book, and most of the time, no one tells us how to actually put that advice into practice in our work.

It drove me crazy as a new writer, but it did send me down the path to where I am today—this site wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t been so determined to figure out how this “writing stuff” worked. And while I’ve written a lot about show, don’t tell (and taught many a workshop on it), I’ve never summed up what we need to know about it.

That changes today.

What we need to know about showing, not telling:

What Feels “Told” Depends on the Narrative Distance

Telling is a sliding scale. A close narrative distance (where the reader feels deep inside the point of view character) is shown by nature, so it’s less forgiving on telling slip ups. A far, omniscient narrative distance is told by nature, because someone other than the point of view character is telling the story.

This I why one novel can feel told and not be told, while another has less telling and feels more told. The deeper the point of view and closer the narrative distance, the more we need to show.

A quick check: is the point of view character experiencing the story through her eyes? If so, this deep POV will need to show more. Is the narrator a character other than the POV character and telling the story from a far? If so, telling is more acceptable because there’s an extra layer in the narrative distance. Determine where you narrator is, and you’ll be able to judge where that novel’s show, don’t tell line is.

(Here’s more on narrative distance and telling)

Certain Words Are Often Found With Told Prose

While not every instance of these red flag words is a problem, the frequency of these words in told prose is enough to make them something to check for if we get feedback about not showing enough in our work. I’ve broken them down into several categories:

Motivational tells: Tells that explain motives and reasons, such as to, when, and because.

Emotional tells: Tells that explain emotion, such as in and with.

Descriptive tells: Tells that explain actions, such as as and could (sense).

Passive tells: Tells found in passive writing using to be verbs, such as was (verb) and is being (verb).

Placeholder tells: Tells found with words we know could be better written, such as adverbs and cliches.

If you’re getting feedback about told prose, try looking for these red flag words first.

(Here’s more on red flag words that often spell trouble)

Explaining Reasons Almost Always Feels Told

Any time we stop to explain why a character is doing what she’s doing, or how something came to be, we’re probably telling. People rarely halt what they’re doing to think about the why—they just do it or see it. These explanations are frequently added because we’re afraid the reader won’t understand why our characters are acting or what something means. If we have to explain it flat out, we haven’t laid enough groundwork for that reason to be clear.

(Here’s more on telling motivation instead of showing it)

To (verb), when, because, and in (emotion) are red flag words that often hang around told prose that explains reasons, such as:

He reached over to pick up my cup.

When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slapped him.

She ran from the room because she couldn’t bear his arrogance.

She screamed in pain as the knife sliced her hand.

Not only does explaining reasons risk telling, it frequently kills the tension of the scene, because we’re not leaving anything for readers to wonder about or figure out on their own.

(Here’s more on the dangers of explaining and exposition)

Flat Description Usually Falls Flat

Description that does nothing more than explain what something looks like sucks the life out of a good scene and can make it feel told, even if it’s not. It’s just a statement of what the author knows is there, not how a character sees the world around her.

Flat description—be it setting, character or action—feels told because it’s not part of the story. It’s information that’s being added to the book, not characters in the book experiencing that detail. Such as:

The sky was a ruddy brownish red.

The sky was the color of cat vomit.

One tells us what color the sky is, the other shows us how the character feels about looking at that color sky. And that shows readers a whole different sky.

(Here’s more on making descriptions come alive)

Telling Happens in Internalization, Too

We typically think of telling as something that happens in action or description, but we find it in internalization as well. The most common offender is when we have a character think about what he’s going to do next, and then we go on to show that happening.

Sometimes these bits read like mini descriptions of the next scene, or a slew of questions. It feels okay, because it’s just the character thinking about his plan, and that’s good. But when we look closer, it’s a mental debate that mirrors the decision-making process that happens right after.

These tells are the easiest to fix, because we just cut them and let the scene unfold. Some good red flag words to find these tells are realized and knew, such as:

He realized he’d have to find a way to get the matches over to the trunk without being seen.

She knew he’d never go for that plan, but she didn’t have a better idea.

When we find these words combined with a detached narrative distance, it’s a good bet it feels told.

(Here’s more on telling in internalization)

Sometimes it’s Okay to Tell

Telling does have its uses, though. It’s a perfectly valid technique for certain tasks, so we shouldn’t be afraid to use it when we need to. If showing is going to detract from what’s going on the scene, or draw too much attention to what’s really important, it might be better to tell. It’s also better to tell if showing is going to bog down the story or bore the reader, such as relaying every single thing that happens in a lengthly fight.

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

Show, don’t tell doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking bit of feedback we dread. It’s much easier to fix when we know what to look for, especially when our beta readers and critique partners are pointing us at the trouble spots.

Do you have trouble with show, don’t tell?

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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  1. Janice, love, love, love this! My personal head-exploding words when reading or critting: suddenly or then.

    I hit either of these in a ms and am so kicked out of the story.

    1. Those do tend to stand out for me, too. I'm actually surprised I didn't include them :)

  2. Janice; I keep a list of the red flag words at my desk and while I'm writing, I pay special attention to make sure I write around those words. Sometimes it slows me down, but when I re-read my work, I don't have to spend as much time editing. Your list is what led me to your blog/website. Great tool, thanks.

    1. Excellent, glad they're helping :) After a while, you'll start avoiding them naturally and they won't even be a problem.

  3. I think a lot of show, don’t tell problems, could be helped if writers thought about it not only at the micro level, but also at the macro level of scene structure.

    When I’m critiquing, the problem I encounter most often from writers struggling with show, don’t tell, is a lack of understanding regarding basic scene structure. This lack of understanding leads them to not knowing which parts of their stories should play out in dramatic scenes and which parts should not. In a sense, they speed through when they should slow down and slow down when they should speed through or cut entirely.

    I see it all the time. It’s so sad. So many ideas that could have been good or even great, are killed because the writer didn’t know what to dramatize and what not to.

    I really do think that if you can understand basic scene structure, know when to dramatize a scene, know how to squeeze all the conflict you can from that scene, many POV problems, or show, don’t tell problems, that hound us as writers, would be resolved.

    A good book for basic scene structure is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. Now, it’s a very basic structure, but from all the critiquing I do, most writers are not doing anything remotely like it.

    1. That makes a lot of sense. I love Bickham's book, and my ancient copy is covered in highlighter and notes. I studied the heck out of that book when I was starting out.

  4. This is soooooooooooo helpful. I'm revising a novel and plan to reserve a whole draft just for showing and telling. out of all the writing troubles out there, i think this is the biggest one for me. Thank you so much!


    1. Most welcome, and I hope it helps during your revisions :)

  5. THanks for recognizing this often annoying advice that isn't always as straightforward as it is point out, Janice.

    While I get your points above, there are things to watch out for-

    I can tell you from experience that sometimes not describing something can make the reader can lead to confusion, and while I don't want to read "At the mirror" description as much the next rader, we can't avoid describing the characters AT ALL.

    My point is that there's a limit to what we can trust the reader to figure out on their own.

    I don't at all mean to imply that the point you make of that stories that have to explain everything aren't laying their groundwork beforehand isn't valid.

    I certainly face those issue myself, and that makes revisions a nightmare, esp. when you don't know how to fix what's pointed to you, as hard as you try, no matter how many blog posts and craft books you read.

    But sometimes achieving this ideal is easier said than done.

    We can't always show actions Nor can we skip to another scene to avoid the over explaining issue. mentioned later in this post.

    This is something those of us who write animal fantasy have to endure often as there are unique challenges than dealing with human anatomy IMHO.

    All that said, thanks for laying out the process in easy-to-read list format.

    1. Everything is a sliding scale, which is why it's often hard to give advice. What works for one book won't for another, and it's up to us as writers to figure out how to apply advice and tips to our work. Sometimes, breaking a "rule" is the right thing to do for that story in that circumstance.

  6. You explain this better than anybody! Must share the link... Hugs, e

  7. It seems a key to avoiding telling is to stay as close to the POV character's perspective as possible--even in third person. Let their perspectives color the world around them and shape the way description, action, and dialogue is presented. And trust your readers to read between the lines (furthermore, develop your own writing skills so readers can read between the lines). Show how the character responds and actions to the situations around them, in meaningful ways, and readers will pick up, through careful writing, the emotions of the scene--because ideally they'll be feeling those same emotions themselves, if they are invested enough in the characters. Give the readers the raw material and they'll connect the dots automatically.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

    1. That certainly helps a lot. I've found a solid POV fixes 90% of common writing problems.

  8. I've recently come to the conclusion that much of an author's voice depends upon how much and when he/she tells during the story. Go too far in either direction and readers won't like it.

    1. I think voice comes from how we describe and relay information in general, so yes, that would play a role. Internalization is another voice-heavy area, and you see a lot of telling there as well.