While I’m running my tail off in NYC spreading the WANA love, Marcy offered to step in and help. She knew the two words that instantly would capture my heart. Star. Trek.
Take it away Marcy!
You’ve heard the advice show, don’t tell until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet all writers still seem to struggle with it. I think one of the reasons is we lack a clear way of understanding the difference between showing and telling. And that’s where Star Trek comes in to save the day.
Showing happens when we let the reader experience things for themselves, through the perspective of the characters. Jeff Gerke, editor-in-chief at Marcher Lord Press, explains showing in one simple question: Can the camera see it?
While I love that way of looking at it, we’d have to really say, can the camera see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, taste it, or think it? (And that would be a strange camera.) Because of that, I prefer to think about showing as being in a Star Trek holodeck.
For those of you who aren’t nearly as nerdy as I am, a holodeck is a virtual reality room where users can act as a character in a story. You can play Jane Eyre or Twilight’s Bella or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.
What the user experiences is what they can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. (Yes, in holodecks you can smell things and you can eat or drink “replicated” food. It’s a completely immersive experience.) To the holodeck user, the experience seems real in all respects. If you turn the safety off, you can even be injured or die.
When you’re faced with deciding whether something is showing or telling, ask yourself this question: If this were a holodeck program, would I be able to experience this?
Let’s take a couple examples and test them out. A straightforward one first.
Kate realized she’d locked her keys in the car.
Now, you’re standing in the holodeck. What do you experience?
…Nothing. We can’t see “realized.” We don’t know how she knows her keys are locked in the car. Anything we might visualize is something we’ve had to add because the author didn’t. There’s no picture here.
Here’s one possible showing version…
Kate yanked on the car door handle. The door didn’t budge, and her keys dangled from the ignition. “Dang it!”
You don’t have to tell us Kate realized her keys were locked inside her car because we’re right there with her. We see her figure it out.
Let’s take a more challenging example. This time you’re in the holodeck playing the character of Linda. (Remember that since you’re Linda, you can hear her thoughts as well as see, smell, hear, taste, and feel what she does.)
First the “telling” version.
Linda stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Though her head spun from the height, she was amazed by the grandeur of it and felt a sense of excitement. Finally she’d taken a big step in overcoming her fear of heights.
What do you physically experience in the holodeck? Only the Grand Canyon. If you don’t know what the Grand Canyon looks like, you can’t even see that. None of the rest can appear around you. None of it is her thoughts. They’re all abstractions. What does being amazed by the grandeur look like? What does excitement feel like? What does her fear of heights feel like?
If we’re in the holodeck, it’s going to play out something more like this…
Linda gripped the damp metal railing that ringed the horseshoe-shaped walkway over the Grand Canyon. Her vision blurred, and she drew in a deep breath and puffed it out the way the instructor taught her in Lamaze class. If it worked for childbirth, it should work to keep her from passing out now. She forced her gaze down to the glass floor. Thick bands of rust red and tan alternated their way down canyon walls that looked as if they’d been chiseled by a giant sculptor. The shaking in her legs faded. She had to get a picture to take back to her kids.
You can see what’s around Linda, and you sense her amazement at the size of the canyon, as well as feel her fear. Emotionally you move with her from fear to wonder to excitement as she thinks about sharing it with her children. We hear it in her thoughts. This is the trick to good internal dialogue. It’s what your character is thinking at that moment, the way they would think it. It’s like you’ve planted a listening device into their brain and can play their thoughts on a speaker.
So next time you’re not sure whether you’re showing or telling, ask yourself “what would I experience in a holodeck?” That’s how you should write it if you want to show rather than tell.
Do you struggle with showing and telling? What’s your biggest hurdle?
On Saturday, July 20, I’m teaching a 90-minute webinar called “Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction” that will help you understand the difference between showing and telling, provide you with guidelines for when to show AND when to tell, and give you practical editing tools for spotting and fixing telling in your writing. Even if you can’t attend the live event, the webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants. The webinar normally costs $45, but you can get 15% off by entering the discount code MarcyShowTell. Click here to register.
P.S. I’ve put together something special for everyone reading this post today. I’m offering a free PDF called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hiring a Freelance Editor.” Click here to sign up for your copy.
Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy) is a speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at www.marcykennedy.com.