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: Setting the Tone

Have you ever read a chase scene that made you feel like you were taking a Sunday stroll? Or maybe the intended Sunday stroll felt like a choppy river ride. Although this can often be due to word choices and faulty imagery, sometimes a few slices to a long, run on sentence can do the trick. When we’re frightened, our mind moves quickly. We think in fragments, with one thought jumping to the next with little, if any, time for retrospect or analytical thinking. Our writing should reflect the natural tone of thought.

If you are writing an intense scene intended to elicit fear or suspense, choose short, even choppy sentences. And strong verbs.

Ex: The light turned green. He gunned it. A flash of movement to his right turned his head. Gripping the steering wheel tighter, he gave a jerk, narrowly missing a side-on collision. The high-pitched blare of a horn pierced his eardrum. He accelerated until buildings and warehouses blurred into indiscriminate bands of color. Faster, faster! Red and blue lights flashed in his peripheral vision. Sirens squealed. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead and into his eye. He blinked it away.

Not: The light ahead of him turned green. He knew the speed limit was thirty five, but his fear urged him to break it. He thought about all the tickets he’d received over the past year. Tanya would kill him. (Really? He’s gonna think about this now? Or is he caught up in escape?) There was a flash of light to his right as he sped across the intersection. It was an oncoming car. (Won’t we make this connection ourselves?) He turned the steering wheel (which verb paints a better picture of action? turned or jerked? Which sounds more panicked?) to miss the oncoming car. The driver honked his horn. He pushed his foot on the grass to go faster. A police man turned on his lights and siren, adding to his anxiety.

Okay, so now let’s try the same scene but with a different tone.

The light turned green. Pressing on the gas until his car accelerated just below the thirty-five mile per hour limit, he draped his hand over the steering wheel and replayed Jenna’s words in his mind. Was she really busy, or was she looking for a convenient way to avoid him? Things had been so much easier with Tessa. Maybe she was a little loud and rough around the edges, but you always knew where you stood. No more guessing and light footing it, studying every eye-twitch for hidden messages.

A flash of light to his right followed by the familiar “whirl-eeee-weee!” of a siren drew his eyes to his speedometer. The dial hovered just above eighty. Great. Here came his third speeding ticket for the month. One more and he’d set a new record.

Wanna try it? See if you can create two conflicting scenes (one intended to elicit fear, and one with a more relaxed or analytical feel. Or perhaps anger and then sadness.) using the following:

A (lit or unlit) stair well, a (dead or alive) flower, peeling wall paper, an extension cord, a workbench with tools of your choice and an old rusted chest. Ah, what’s inside?

As usual, email, facebook or comment your answers. Who knows, maybe one of these prompts will turn into a 90,000 word story!