Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Are You Showing or Telling Your Internalization?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Show, don't tell doesn't just apply to the action in your scenes. It also affects a character's internalization.   

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. Telling in internalization can distance the reader from the character, creating detachment instead of the closeness good internal thoughts excel at.

These emotional and motivational tells sneak into a manuscript when the author stops the story to explain what's motivating a character to act, or why that character is feeling what she's feeling.

Let's check in with Bob and the Zombies 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 read 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 analyze it:
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's thoughts, 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 typically has.
Maybe they needed something from his building?
This is a solid line of internalization. It shows him wondering what useful item he might use to trick Sally into crossing town and to go his office building in search of Jane.
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 dialogue, 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 Tell Me About it: 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 isn't usually noticeable, while the same line with other told prose usually sounds detached and explanatory.

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. 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 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 convince 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 as if it was a fact. It could be something he just made up. That adds a little tension to this as well.

(Here's more on Internal Medicine: 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 ever find yourself telling your internalization?

*Originally published July 2014. Last update September 2020.

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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  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!

  5. I'm dealing with some internalization in a project and I appreciate this article. It helps me understand how to tweak for more showing and not telling of the pieces I usually lean into with "author summary."

    1. Glad it was helpful. The summary is handy during a first draft, since it lets us gather our thoughts and figure out what we want to say. Just remember where they are so you fix them on the next draft :)

  6. Thanks, Janice! As I finish my final revisions on my next Janey McCallister mystery, I found this article helpful in reminding me what I do well and where I can improve. I want to make sure my Internalizations are strong, vibrant, and showing -- especially since these are single POV stories. I appreciate all you do for fiction writers!

    1. Most welcome! I love revision reminders. I like to keep a checklist so I don't forget things :) And thanks!