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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?

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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