Tuesday, April 10, 2018

7 Ways to Master “Show, Don’t Tell”

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

“Show, Don’t Tell” is probably the most often-repeated writing advice in the world. It means that you shouldn't dump a load of information in the middle of the page, because it will stop your story dead. But it's easy to fix that problem, if you know how.

Here are seven different ways that you can unobtrusively slip information (also known as exposition) into your story without raising any red flags. Master these ninja exposition tricks, and you’ll never struggle with “Show, Don’t Tell” again.

Trick #1: Action

The most exciting way to bury exposition is to cover it with action. If your characters are fighting for their lives, ducking for cover, or engaged in a high-speed pursuit, the reader's adrenaline will be pounding. That's the perfect opportunity to slip in your exposition under the radar.

In my second Dru Jasper novel, A Kiss Before Doomsday, the heroes are pursued by seemingly unstoppable undead creatures. If I wanted to dump some exposition on the reader in the worst possible way, I could have done this:

"Hey, guess what?" Dru said. "Undead creatures are vulnerable to sunlight. Now take a seat, because I'm going to lecture you all about how we can turn that to our advantage..."
How boring is that, right? I'm falling asleep already.

Instead, I used action. I buried that little factoid in a high-speed chase involving Greyson's demon-possessed muscle car:
Greyson spun the steering wheel hard left. The tires broke their grip on the waterlogged pavement, and Hellbringer's wet tires slid sideways with a demonic hiss. The black car's long nose swung around, and the creature that had been chasing them hit the left fender at breakneck speed. The remaining creatures scattered into the shadows on either side, as if trying to stay out of the sunlight. If the sun harmed them, Greyson realized, maybe he could turn that to his advantage.
See, exposition is much more interesting when it's wrapped in action.

By the way, hiding exposition with action isn't always easy. The trick is to make the information relevant to the scene. If a character drones on, it stretches the credibility of your story, and can destroy your pacing. But if you find that happening, the bright side is that it will make you realize exactly how much—or how little—of this exposition is actually needed. Figure out the minimum. Trim accordingly.

Trick #2: Conflict

Exposition is much easier for the reader to absorb if it's delivered as an insult, thrown down as a challenge, or said in anger.

Take a good look at the character who must deliver the exposition in this scene. Is there any way that you can make this character angry, hostile, or impatient?

Or if your exposition must occur in the description, is there any way you can use it to cause trouble for the characters? In other words, can the information itself create conflict?

At the start of A Kiss Before Doomsday, I had to quickly explain that Dru's crystal shop had been destroyed in the previous book. But it would have been a mistake to recap the previous book at length. Instead, I used the description of Dru's ruined shop to create more conflict:
Since the Four Horsemen had plowed a truck right through the front windows a few days ago, nearly flattening everyone inside, the crystal shop was now a boarded-up disaster area. The fluorescent overhead fixtures were destroyed, so now the only light came from a couple of battered table lamps propped up in the far corners. Plus what little rainy-day gloom made it around the edges of the plywood covering the former front windows. As Dru entered, a dark figure hunched in the gloom, silhouetted by the lamplight.
The exposition is much easier to swallow, because it's creepy. Which brings us to our next trick.

Trick #3: Fear

Technically, fear is another kind of conflict, but it's internal rather than external. Here's how to use it to your advantage.

Take a close look at the information from the point of view of the character who must deliver it. Is there any way you can tie this information to a big risk? Maybe losing face, losing a job, or losing a friend?

Make it clear that the character is afraid to deliver the information, because he or she is worried about the repercussions. What will happen when the truth comes out?

Your scene will instantly become more interesting as the character stammers and tries to avoid or delay revealing the information. And instead of being bored, and the reader will actually want to hear it.

Trick #4: Humor

This is my personal favorite strategy. As long as you make the reader smile, you can bring on the exposition. Sarcasm is your friend, here.
Salem let out a gasp and sagged against a broken bookshelf, holding his side. “Fuller’s earth. I need it.”

Rane, obviously confused, turned her palms up. “What the hell is fuller’s earth?”

Quickly, Dru explained. “Once upon a time, fullers were people who cleaned wool. They used absorbent clay to soak up impurities. And mop up spills.” She glanced down at the toxic orange-speckled puddle congealing on the floor between them. “They lived happily ever after. Now let’s go.”

Trick #5: Immediacy

In almost every single unpublished manuscript I've ever read, there's a moment where one character turns to another and says, "Hey, remember when I told you about . . . ?"

Immediately, I bang my head on my desk. Because that's one of the clunkiest ways to convey information. And it's totally unnecessary.

You don't need to have one character remind another. Just make this scene, right now, the first time the character tells them. Problem solved.

Bonus, that gives you more opportunities for dramatic conflict, as in: "Why didn't you tell me before?" or "You never told me that!"

Trick #6: Procrastination

I'm a big believer in the power of procrastination. If you delay doing something long enough, eventually it won't need to be done at all, right? That's my mantra for success.

But seriously, if there's any way you can delay exposition, do it. Resist the urge to front-load a story with information. Save it for a later scene.

If readers are invested in your characters, plot, and setting, they will bear with you long enough to reach the part of the story where they really do need to know this information. By then, they will want to hear it.

Trick #7: Deletion

As writers, our brains are full to the brim with all of the details about our stories. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of thinking that the reader absolutely needs to know all of this stuff, too.

But do they really?

Often, no. Readers are smart. They'll figure these things out. If you have a huge block of exposition just sitting there on the page, not doing anything, try deleting it. See what happens to your scene. If the scene still makes sense without the exposition, then you didn't need it anyway.

Never Suffer From “Show, Don’t Tell” Again

The next time you find yourself flailing in the “Show, Don’t Tell” quicksand, use one of these seven methods to take control of your story.

Open up your notebook, look over each of these methods, and brainstorm at least a half-dozen ways you could handle the exposition.

Could you cover it with action? Could you have one character say it in anger—or be afraid to say it? Could you use the information to cause trouble and create conflict for the characters? And so on.

Once you master “Show, Don’t Tell,” you’ll be able to hide the exposition in plain sight. And your readers won't even notice, because they’ll be too busy enjoying your great story.

How about you? What sort of information do you struggle to show (and not tell) in your story? Leave me a comment below, or contact me at www.laurencemacnaughton.com

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

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  1. My favorite "show" technique is dialogue. It's a guaranteed winner, a spark that can ignite many of the points you shared. It hooks the reader and drives the story to new heights.

  2. Very true, Al. Remember, it's important to make sure that the dialogue contains actual conflict, in order to keep the scene moving forward. Otherwise, you end up with one character basically saying: "As you know . . ." That exposition is telling, not showing, and it can kill your scene tension dead. So, to "show" instead of tell, focus on the conflict in the dialogue.