We hear a lot about “show, don’t tell” and deep POV, and yet, we continue to connect the dots for our readers, drawing road maps they really don’t need. Half the time, the action of the story is enough to get my heart pumping. So don’t tell me Joe Bloe is scared. Let me dive deep into his brain and become a part of him. Let me feel his heart racing and the sweat pooling between his shoulder blades. Make my vision narrow into a sea of black as everything around me spins into oblivion.
As writers, so much happens in our head—like entire, sometimes very argumentative, conversations—it can be hard knowing which ones to invite our readers in on and which ones to lay dormant. But as a reviewer, reading those, “she felt,” “she said,” “she thought,” attributes set my teeth on edge. Almost as much as those annoying and unnecessary prepositional phrases like “on her face” or “over her chest.” If your heroine’s smiling, we know where the smile appears. Unless maybe you’re writing a sci-fi. And where else would your hero cross his arms?
So how can we strike the balance between tmi and colorless drivel?
For starters, get rid of as many “he said,” “she said,” statements as possible. Most of the time, they are completely unnecessary. If you’ve got two people conversing, we expect there to be a back and forth banter.
“Did you go to the game last night,” Jenna asked.
“No. I had homework,” Mariah replied.
“Oh, that’s a bummer. I guess you never got to talk to David then,” Jenna answered.
Can be changed to:
“Did you go to the game last night?” Jenna closed her locker and turned to Mariah. (See, now we know who the players are. Additional attributes are unnecessary.)
“No, I had homework.”
“Oh, that’s a bummer. I guess you never got to talk to David then.”
Doesn’t the second version flow better?
And what about all those, “he wondered,” “he thought,” “he felt” statements? They shatter the fantasy world I’ve created in my mind and remind me that I’m reading a story about Joe Bloe.
But my biggest, biggest, biggest pet-peeve is being spoon fed a conclusion when I could be given a visual or physical description that allows me to draw my own.
“She was frustrated by his response.”
“The muscles in the back of her neck tightened.”
“She rolled her eyes.”
Whatever. Just please, please, please don’t tell me how your heroine’s feeling. Let me feel it with them.
If you want to create engaging, believable characters that plunge your reader into the story, you need to spend time analyzing yourself. And you thought your manic-to-breakdown episodes were a waste of time. Au, contraire mon frere. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of depression to help you tap into your characters inner demons.
Maybe I’m just weird–okay, yeah I am–but nearly every thought and emotion I have triggers some sort of physiological response. Frustration makes my muscles tense. Sometimes it will even quicken my pulse or raise my body temperature. If delayed, it will give me a headache. Normally the headache will begin behind one eye, or at the base of my skull. As the tension increases, so does the pain, until everything else is muted beneath a throbbing migraine.
And when I’m scared? I’ll feel it in my legs. Yep, my legs. Although I don’t always put that in my stories. It’s probably a bit unique, although as I think about our physiological response to fear, I’m not so sure. Our heart races, our blood vessels expand, and energy-increasing chemicals zap our nerves into full-alert mode.
And I could go on all day talking about all the muscle-constricting or muscle-relaxing, vision-blurring or vision-narrowing, physiological responses I have to emotions, but you’d do better to study your own. Then, the next time you’re tempted to say, “She was frightened,” “His response angered him,” or “She felt like…” stop and tap into the deep recesses of your mind, recalling a time when you’ve experienced a similar emotion. Then relive the emotion through your character. Your reader will thank you for it.
An excellent, and timely, post.
I know that my first drafts are full of the kinds of things you mentioned here as well as a ton of telling, instead of showing.
But I am getting better at pruning out the deadwood and emphasizing the fruitful passages with every day I write.
Thanks for the lesson, too! A writer can never learn too much.
Carrie L. Lewis
Thanks, Carrie, although I’ve read your writing and I think you do a great job! But I agree, we can all improve in this area. Ah, the pursuit of literary excellence, a lofty, yet honorable, goal.