Showing Vs. Telling

Normally, I stick with devos and other life applications, but this has been quite the topic swimming around the ACFW loop lately. I’ve also noticed this topic appear on numerous blogs within the past week, so…yep…I’m jumping on the bandwagon. And since about 70 percent of my subscribers are writers (intimidating, yes), I thought this might be a topic of interest to you.

This morning as I was critiquing a manuscript sent over the scribes loop, I realized about half of the first page could be cut. It was all telling–recapping. So how do you explain the difference between showing versus telling? I love the illustration one author provided. She encouraged us to think about a theater production. In drama, you don’t have the luxury of explaining how the character feels and there’s no way to provide background information except through action (via flashbacks) and dialogue. So, when we write, it helps to envision our characters as actors on a stage. If you were directing them, what would you tell them to do? How would you encourage them to reveal the desired emotions?

When you write, you want your reader so involved in your characters they feel exactly what your characters are feeling. They see as if through the eyes of the character and draw conclusions as they would if they were watching the story unfold on the screen. (Meaning, we must resist the urge to spell out the conclusions for them. Example, if your character slams their fist on the table, there’s no need to say, “He was angry.”)

Allow me to give an example. In my Operation First Novel finaling manuscript, Breaking Free (formally known as Impossible Choices) a big part of the story revolves around Alice’s insecurities. She feels unattractive and blames herself for her husband’s emotional withdrawal. Unaware that her insecurities are the result of wounds inflicted early in childhood and that her perception of the present is based largely on those insecurities (and the lies she’s come to believe about herself) she assumes her feelings are caused by events in the present. This may sound a bit confusing, and I don’t want to venture too far off topic here except to say we will act in accordance with who we believe we are and will often interpret the present based on past experiences and our beliefs about ourselves and our role in this world. Meaning, if you assume people are out to get you, perhaps because you were mistreated as a child, you will see injustice in day-to-day encounters. Similarly, if you have experienced a steady dose of love and acceptance as a child, you will likely assume people like you. When they behave inappropriately, because you assume you yourself are likeable, you draw the conclusion that the issue must lie with them.

Okay, so how does this translate to showing vs. telling? Back to my example. In my story, Alice (my heroine) struggles with insecurity, and believes she is unworthy and unlovable. So, when her husband pulls away, she assumes it is because of something she’s done, or hasn’t done. If only she were prettier, more exciting, more alluring, her husband would stay home, wouldn’t drink, all those things.

Yet, my reader doesn’t want to hear all that. That’d be like sitting through someone else’s therapy session. Ugh! But if I design scenes to show this, perhaps by having my heroine join a gym, tug at her clothes in an attempt to hide her stomach, and pop Lean Cuisines in the microwave, the reader begins to feel what Alice feels. Hence, there is no reason to tell them.

Similarly, when revealing emotions, I don’t want my reader to know Alice is scared. I want to make them scared with her. I want to make their pulse race, spine tingle with adrenaline, and their muscles tense.

But how do I do that? First, by telling an excellent, vibrant, and descriptive story. This involves carefully selecting details that set the desired tone. For example, if I want my reader (who has become my main character) to feel joy, I can weave enticing or comforting aromas, sounds, and images into the scene. Perhaps children giggling on a sloping hill, or a hummingbird flittering among fragrant rose bushes.

And here’s one that somewhat makes me laugh. You want to demonstrate surprise, so you tell the reader, “The sound of a slamming door surprised her.” Or, “Her thoughts were disrupted by the sound of an approaching car.”

How about you immerse the reader in the thoughts of the character, then jolt them out with the sound of an approaching car? Meaning, reveal the thoughts, then, bam! Reveal the sound, “A car door slammed. She turned…”

See, you don’t need to tell us her thoughts were disrupted because our thoughts are disrupted as well.

I’d love to hear you thoughts on this, and perhaps I will address it more later. But for now…back to that critique I told you all about.

Tomorrow I’ll route you to a friend’s blog so you can hear a bit more about Alice, her story, and why I wrote it.

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Creative Writing: Using Inner Turmoil to Create Conflict

This morning I received an email that came across the American Christian Fiction Writers‘ loop asking for help for a particular scene. Basically, information needed to be conveyed, but the author didn’t want to comatose her readers in the process. I’ve seen this happen time and time again. A passage, sometimes even an entire chapter, will be jam-packed with one eye-blurring detail after another without even the hint of conflict. It’s a self-defeating situation, really.  The information, as important as the author thought it was, is ignored. If the reader is anything like me, they’ll graze through the monotonous, skimming ahead until they get to the good stuff–the drama.

About a week ago I critiqued a romance story. It was your typical girl meets boy, girl likes boy, boy likes girl plot. It was a lovely Hallmark scenario full of sunshine, flowers, picnics, and plans for romantic dates. And it bored me to tears!

So I put my computer down and escaped to my basement for a run before completing the rest of my to-do list. Which would bore you to tears should I record it here. Unless I shared just a smidgeon of all the inner turmoil that occurred while doing the mundane. Either I am the only emotional wreck out there, or we are all plagued by our inner demons. We live in a sinful world, after all. And life is full of conflict. In that hour alone while I stared at the cement wall, the belt spinning beneath my steadily pounding feet, my mind raged. As I watched the miles slowly increase, I thought about all the things I had to get done. This opened the door for false expectations, both of myself and others. Then of course, there was the gentle tug of the Holy Spirit calling me to surrender, to fight against my anxious, fretting, sinful nature so I could rest in His grace. As you can see, my potentially boring run was filled with emotional conflict.

Think about your typical day. The phone rings. You glance at the caller ID. It’s your best friend. You want to answer it, but you have a long list of things to get done before your husband gets home. Perhaps painful memories surface–of when your husband pushed you aside, or of a time when you’re friend let you down when you needed her most.

Or maybe it’s dinner time. You’ve cooked steak because it’s your husband’s favorite, but as you eat, your eyes drift to your steadily expanding stomach and insecurities surface. As your mind dwells on the ten pounds you’ve gained over the past year, your perception becomes twisted. Is your husband staring at you? Does he think you eat to much? So you react, only your husband wasn’t thinking of you at all. He was deep in his own world of inner demons and insecurities. And viola’! You have conflict.

Everything we do is tainted by the baggage we carry. The same is true for our characters. The next time a boring scene threatens, dig deeper. Remind yourself of your character’s inner demons and insecurities. How would those demons rear their ugly heads in the current situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean your characters will throw a fit. Perhaps they will hide behind a painted smile, but their mind will rage. Because the human mind always does.

And if you don’t know your character’s inner demons and reality-distorting insecurities, then set your computer aside until you do.

Confused? Maybe this article will help: Conflict found on “Learn the Elements of a Novel” website.