We live in a Golden Age to be a writer. Everyone has an opportunity to publish. The downside of this is that we are being deluged with bad books, which frequently are just books published before the writer was ready.
In the old days, most writers failed miserably (especially in the beginning), but our failure was private and came in the form of stacks of rejected queries. These days, if we jump the gun, our rejection is very public and comes in the form of poisonous reviews from irritated readers.
This is one of the reasons its important to always be learning as much about the craft as we can. True artists are always open to new ideas, to growing and learning more. This is how we can enjoy a career where each book is better than the last. It can help build reader anticipation for our next book and the next. Readers trust us to be growing and always improving our storytelling.
Show Don’t Tell
One of the biggest problems I see (when I do edit) is writers have not yet learned how to show and not tell. This makes the work repetitious, predictable, and since it’s one-dimensional, the reader isn’t pulled into the work. The best way to keep readers hooked is to immerse them in your world and never let them up for air.
We’ve all heard the saying, Actions speak louder than words. This is true in life and even truer in story. Readers experience all the same emotions we do. They experience the same emotions as our characters.
Our job, as writers and artists, is to make them connect their own experiences with what is happening with the character. We’ve all felt love, lust, rage, disappointment, depression, loss, and elation. Our goal when writing is to help readers make that connection.
To show a little of what we are talking about, I am going to be a bit self-indulgent and share parts of one of my works Dandelion, which I have submitted for publication. In this story, Jane, a homemaker and prior D.A. is planning to kill the gunman who murdered her six-year-old son in a mass shooting.
Jane nurses her wine to kill the time that refuses to pass and the memories that refuse to die. She nurses her wine and nurses her pain. She wants the pain erased, but it’s all she has left. She needs it to propel her forward, because she’s planning the unthinkable. Revenge.
Most adults have been in a position where the hurt, pain, anger is so great that all they can do is keep sipping at alcohol in hopes they can numb the emotion threatening to break their thin composure. Also we can tell Jane is conflicted. She wants the pain to go, but needs it to keep her pressing toward her goal.
A song kicks up on the jukebox. Broken Hallelujah. It’s already played three times in the hour she’s been here. The song makes her start thinking and thinking only causes pain and her mind drifts from its moorings to that moment the world went wrong.
Here, the reader is given a sense of setting. We hear the song, and it is a very specific song. My character is a good Christian woman who now has lost her faith. The visual sense is the one most overused and it is actually one of the weakest senses.
Sound and smell are far more powerful. Also, instead of simply saying her mind drifts, I deepen the experience with the words “drifts from its moorings.” This gives a sense that what was once anchored has unexpectedly shifted.
Most of us have been in a position of stepping off a boat onto a dock and feeling the sensation of the boat drifting a way from us, scaring us. This makes the experience far more visceral. It also allows me to show the reader that Jane is no longer in control of what was once stable.
A hand touches her shoulder. Jane jumps, so caught in the black undertow of her grief that she’s momentarily forgotten where she is.
All of us have been through something so terrible, that we drift into another world. We have a foot in reality, but another in the world of our pain. In this story we see that experience because Jane jumps when someone touches her. She needs a moment to remember where she is and why she’s there. I choose the word undertow very carefully. Undertows are invisible, frightening and have the power to drown and kill.
When the protagonist finally meets the person (Svetlana) who will help her with her revenge, she’s rattled. She’s a housewife, not a killer. But she’s trying to look strong so she asks for a cigarette even though she isn’t a smoker. She’s also hesitant to talk, because she knows that she’s planning something illegal and (to some) immoral.
Jane swallows. She says nothing. Volunteers nothing. She draws deeply on the cigarette, and tries to look casual, like she does this all the time, but Svetlana’s black eyes draw her in, and Jane’s helpless to escape their gravity.
Notice Jane swallows. Most people, when they are nervous, get dry mouth. Instead of me telling the reader that Jane is nervous, the words show it. I also show how she’s scared and knows she’s guilty. She won’t say what she wants aloud.
“I saw the news. I saw what he did.” Svetlana’s words sizzle with acid. A long pregnant moment expands between them and, just as Jane thinks she might crack from the pressure, Svetlana’s manner softens.
All of us have been in a situation where the tension is so thick we feel we are about to crumble under the pressure. Instead of telling the reader. “Jane is very tense, nervous about what comes next,” I pull the reader into deep POV where the reader can almost feel the pressure stealing their breath.
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my writing :D.
What This Means to You
When I read a lot of new works, I see a lot of “coaching the reader.” New writers do a lot of telling. And yes, we have to do some telling or our story would be 500,000 words long. But through training and practice, we can discern which parts to tell, versus which parts need to be shown so they can have max effect on the reader.
When I see phrases like “and she wept bitterly” I roll my eyes. Or “she slammed the door in anger.” Glad I was told she was angry. Stop telling! We are smart and we get it. Really. I’ve read works with so much heart-pounding I thought the character was about to go into cardiac arrest. There are a lot of ways we can use emotion and senses without being predictable.
On Friday, I highlighted two of WANA’s instructors in their post Making the Pages Cry. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have created a tremendous resource for writers The Emotion Thesaurus and they will be teaching a class soon Using Nonverbal Communication to Wow Readers.
All of us can learn to do these techniques better. It’s how we grow to eventually become masters of our art. I am still learning and always will be. I hope you guys will take advantage of this class, because it can take your writing to another level.
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are some works who used this technique so well you couldn’t sleep until you finished the story?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of February I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
I love the expression a pregnant moment – and especially authors who use it well, and not for the sake of using it! Thanks for sharing some examples with us!
I never use that expression; whenever I see it, I get a jolt of confusion before I finish the sentence and understand… It feels like an uncomfortable jolt.
I hope that’s not the point…
I recently purchased the Emotion Thesaurus and can’t believe what a difference it’s made. It finally made clear for me the difference between showing and telling. Every writer should have this book in her reference library!
Thanks for the recommendation!
“Her mind drifts from its moorings” I love it. I was right there with her.
I find myself doing a lot of telling in the first draft and then have to go back and go deeper into the scene to make it a tangible experience for the reader. You know, I have the Emotional Thesaurus somewhere… need to go find it!
Show don’t tell…how many times have I heard that? Still, telling give an opportunity to use the figuritive language that makes me want to write in the first place…as demonstrated in your examples. Yes.
We have to balance BOTH. When editors get irritated is when writers get lazy.
“She was so angry at Bruce.” Okay., BORING. More like: “She bit down hard on her tongue to stem the words she wanted to shout. The pain grounded her and helped her maintain control. Bruce would not get custody, and play house with his new mistress.”
Nicely written. It’s the same kind of lesson I’m learning in my acting class…
Reblogged this on Dr. Shay West aka Dr. Shay Fabbro aka Dr. FAB! and commented:
Amazing blog from one of my fav bloggers! WANA Momma, Kristen Lamb 🙂
Great tips, so eloquently put it is so easy to patronize our readers. I will check my book to see if I am guilty of this. Thanks Kristen.
One of the best pieces of advice I got from an editor early on was show don’t tell. It causes me, as a writer, to go deeper into the story. What’s going on around my character? What does she smell? How does she feel physically? The biggest challenge for me is finding different ways to describe the same 5 senses over and over. I love a good challenge though!
Writing is like drawing (showing)a picture of the world with your paintbrush ( pen/keyboard)
Every artist can draw a different picture of the same scene different shades colors curved or lines.
Therefore I like this expression “show more than tell”
I love your blog. I find myself nodding as I read and think that I wish I had been taught to write by someone like you.
A pregnant moment! I love it. I found myself holding my breath too. Can’t wait for the book!
Thank you for sharing. I guess I shouldn’t point out that your first excerpt is all telling -:)
Getting the emotions right is tough. When I wrote my first novel I was so into it, I so identified myself with the protagonist that I took on some of his anger and frustration. My family saw the difference in me, but it took me a bit longer to see that for myself. I only hope that that level of emotion came out in the written words. I’ve just recently
There are so many books on writing that it’s a near impossibility to know which ones are genuine, providing real insight, and those that are just words to fill the pages. So please excuse me when my skepticism alert starts ringing any time someone promotes a book on writing.
I do enjoy your blog and have gleaned some useful nuggets.
It isn’t all telling in that there is action that shows her emotional state. She’s nursing on wine. Telling would be, “Jane is nervous.” I show by having her do things nervous people do when killing time before a secret meeting at a bar. People who are nervous sip at their drink, rub their hands, all actions that displace nervous energy. Again, it goes to balancing showing and telling, merging them where it’s difficult to tell which is which.
Every should learn to do this more! There is a place for telling, but showing yanks those readers right in – this is something I’m paying most attention to on my next revision of my novel!
I have dusted off my novel after years of its hiding in the back of my mind. This advise has done me so well, that I immediately knew I was doing the “The door slammed because she was angry” scenario. Now I can open it up to an new level understanding. I like blogs that are short and to the point, I can understand them better then going trough twenty pages of saying the same thing, but in different formats.
Another great resource is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It has a great section on writing dialogue and one on showing vs telling. (I recommending this and I write nonfiction!)
I truly enjoyed this post, Kristen. The little snippets of your work (very evocative!!!) and the lesson on show don’t tell was inspired.
The waiting game is tough, but if the fantastic little tastes of your novel are any indication of talent, publication can’t be far off!!! Loved this post.
To me, show, don’t tell is incredibly important. I hope every time I write I do the lesson justice.
Have a great afternoon, and best of luck to you on your novel. It sounds amazing.
Thanks for another great post. We can’t be reminded enough to show and not tell. It’s such an easy trap to fall into.
Kristen, I forgot to say congrats on WANAcon success!! I’ve heard such great things about the conference on Twitter and FB and I’m so thrilled it will be an ongoing thing!
So happy for you!!!
I am in the process of self-editing and have rewritten all of the sentences with the word “felt.” I am trying to avoid adverbs and have attempted to paint a picture of every scene. I am still learning, polishing and rewriting while using lots of elbow grease. I can’t wait until it is done….
This is a great example and explanation. Even though there is not much overt action the reader still sees, feels and pulled in. It’s a subtle ‘show’.
Again, nicely done, Kristin. I’ve been working on showing rather than telling. It can be very confusing to a new writer. I like what you said about the balance between telling and showing–if it’s all showing, one’s story could end up being “500,000 words.”
“Svetlana’s words sizzle with acid.”
Thanks for sharing from your own work. I really enjoyed it and it was a great example of showing. You’re right that we also have to find the balance between showing and telling so we don’t end up with a massive manuscript.
It was great to see an example of how you’ve used strong emotional word choice to pull the reader deep into Jane’s POV–great stuff Kristen! And thanks for the shout out. We are really looking forward to this webinar (especially after experiencing WANA Con!) and helping writer in this tricky area. 🙂
You brought up a point which was a major topic of interrupting the speaker at those other non-on-line sit in an auditorium type conferences or a hotel conference room with fold-away chairs. Many are committing to self-publishing because the cost of sending to agents or publishers in print form plus postage and handling only to get a rejection letter if the submitter remembered to include a SASE only to get a form letter back of denial. With blogs on the Internet, self-publishing became affordable so it made sense to me that self-publishing novels would become easier and less expensive, creating a new world for readers. I have heard editors tell of JUST WRITE IT and do not worry about anything. It is more important to write your story. The next conference an editor lectured on the importance of English Grammar and the second she saw a misspelling or the butchering of the English Language; the great masterpiece was tossed in the slush pile. My goal is to write as many as I can and like throwing mud on the wall I hope one novel sticks in the mind of an editor to get me “published and paid”. I read your E-Blog Newsletter because I, too, believe in forever learning just to have a good mental attitude, if success runs and hides from me like a sorority lady telling people I am not the one he is suppose to marry. Finding the right editor is probably the same way. Keep sending a submission somewhere until someone says yes; I really like this. Or I guess; one can self-publish.
Thank you for sharing your prose! I think your tips could apply to bloggers as well as book writers. 🙂
Totally embarrassing! I’m having problems with this post in particular. Sent it to trash and will re-post, Ok?
Always rich insights — and examples. I absorb the examples! Look forward to that work becoming available. Now, off to fix mine…
I’ve heard of the Emotional Thesaurus… I’ve wanted to get it, but I haven’t seen it yet. But, after having read this, I know I probably need it. I’m not quite there yet… I knew that already, and I’ve been trying, but it takes work to show not tell.
Part of it’s that I don’t know how to show it… the rest of the time, I don’t realise I’m doing it.
I just ordered the Emotion Thesaurus yesterday and am looking forward to delving my senses into it. I might even sprinkle some of its wisdom into my WIP.
One thing about the “show, don’t tell” criticism I have found is that when people don’t know how else to critique a work, they use this phrase. I’ve asked people to show me a specific passage only to have them say basically what I wrote in the first place but just with their favorite descriptors. You even had a comment here saying one of your excerpts was telling.
All of us need to hone our five senses. Most of the time sensory details will make it feel like showing and not telling. Of course, I’ve had someone critique a short story recently saying there were too many descriptors and not enough action and the next person said it needed more description. Is all this subjective? Or is there a right answer out there?
It’s subjective. One way to locate “telling” is by hunting our was clusters. She was nervous. Felt is another offender. She felt scared. No, draw us in. If you are doing it correctly there WILL be times where it’s hard to tell if it’s telling or showing. Just remember that actions speak louder than words. Don’t tell us someone is nervous, have them DOING what nervous people do. Don’t tell us someone is angry, SHOW them doing what angry people do. They slam doors, shuffle papers, fail to make eye contact, etc.
I really like the soul song “Show and Tell” by Al Wilson (1973). I listened to it on You Tube while typing this reply. I was trying to figure what you meant by SHOW instead of Tell, so thank you for the explanation and examples. Hopefully, I can remember it while I sweat through typing out my fictional stories even though there is a cool Ocean breeze through the screen of the side window this early Thursday morning. On this last day of February, I am writing on romance. I write No Sex romance novels (PG13), so I better add more show than tell for those romance novel readers.
This is a great reminder article for me, Kristen. I can definitely see when I am showing and when I am telling instead. I like the example that you used.
I couldn’t attend WANAcon this past weekend because I had to work, so I am so pumped that this upcoming class is going on! I will definitely be participating in this one! Sounds like a great craft class. I’m sure I’m adding “telling” info in my work without realizing, so it’ll come in handy for editing too.
We can’t hear it enough: show, don’t tell. Thanks for the excellent reminder.
I think this is fabulous! I loved how you pulled us in, then broke us out to tell us a technique then pulled us right back in! 😀 Also, I was told recently that it’s not exactly, “show, don’t tell.” My critique partner and I both agree it’s more, “feel, don’t tell.” She said to me, “Dakota, I want you to make me feel what Keil is feeling. I want to feel the dirt and stones digging into my back, smell the dog breath and feel it’s bone breaking bite on my arm. Make me feel as if I am Keil.” Once she told me that, I not only got the hang of “Show, don’t tell,” I have been able to read through my manuscript and fix these areas! 😀
I don’t have an official blog, so I’ll just have to settle with my name once in the hat.
I can absolutely see a few places in my WIP where I need to sharpen the words, for the showing part.
Thank you for sharing your work.
Another great post, as usual. 🙂
In the past couple of years I’ve found myself reading some pop-culture-sensation books with hopes of understanding just what about them is so attractive, and while I now understand the appeal (Christian Grey’s methods ARE pretty hot), the writing in some of these books disgusts me. Sometimes I find myself genuinely wondering what publisher/editor team actually allowed this to be printed.
I may not be an expert writer (yet), but I know bad when I see it, and bad writing makes me very, very sad.
Wow! Another on-target post, Kristen. And, yes, I do happen to have The Emotion Thesaurs downloaded to the Kindle app on my iPad. I’ll have to fire it up and keep it close by, as I so often run out of other ways of saying “she cried”. I notice, also, that you use first-person present-tense in Dandelion. I like the sense of immediacy and am considering changing my story to first-person.
Reblogged this on Life Happens at Places and commented:
Based on your last two blogs, I am convinced you are in my head knowing what I need to do. Things for the encouragement to confront a member of my team who is not pulling their weight, and will more than likely, no longer be part of the team. And I have been struggling with show vs. tell in my memoir. Thank you thank you for your commitment to your craft and to all of us.
Meant to say “thanks for the encouragement.” Off to write with a spring in my step.
Never written a book! Been unable to find my voice just yet. I just can’t put my finger on a particular subject. How do you choose? I’m open to suggestions! I tend to write using magical realism. Hence, my short stories resemble Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende’s style and that’s precisely what I’m trying to avoid. (My short stories are written in Spanish. That’s why I don’t share them on my blog (just in case you wonder)
I can write on anything. Just a few minutes on a search engine and I usually can think of something to write. I am more into the James Bond type of novel writing, but I want to add a couple instead of Bond with a different woman at every episode. Back after the new millennium I joined Sleuths’ Ink to learn writing mysteries and Ozarks Romance Authors to learn writing romance, so today I usually can classify my novels in Mysteries and Romance with subgenres in order to find a publisher. Finding the publisher is what motivates me to write and Romance and Mysteries are usually the best sellers in Fiction Novels.
The book I just finished reading by PJ Reece, ‘Roxy’ was un-put-downable. The writing was so fresh e.g. “Why didn’t you write? And other accusations that would have happily clobbered their way up the escape route of my big fat mouth. But nothing came out. The assassin in me was having a fit of conscience.”
Kristen, I loved seeing the examples from your writing on how to really draw the reader in and create that reader-character bond. This is definitely something we’ll be addressing in our webinar, so thanks for the plug 😉
Excellent post. After reading it I went immediately to a paragraph in my manuscript and changed this:
“Lenna marched over to the girl and smacked her so hard that she nearly fell backwards. All of the others couldn’t believe their eyes. The girl had too much pride to cry and held her face for a few moments then stood to face the cook”
“Without a warning, the elder cook rushed to the girl, raised her right hand up above her, landing it across her left cheek with so much force, the girl staggered backwards. All of the others stood where they were, speechless. The young cook’s pride alone was enough of a dam to keep tears from her face. She raised her hands to the left side of her face for a moment, then dropped them and faced Leena as if she was ready to strike her back.”
Reblogged this on Musings Of Papa Zen and commented:
Writing is like giving birth. First you conceive the idea, carry it around with you for a while and then deliver it. Once you birth a book it’s a miraculous feeling. What I wasn’t ready for was the post partum depression after it was published.
Another way to talk about this is through summary and scene.
From Janet Burroway’s WRITING FICTION
“Scene: Scene is to time what concrete detail is to the senses; it is the crucial means of allowing your reader to experience the story.
Scene is action (and often dialogue, but not always. You can have a scene without dialogue ) that takes place over a set period of “real” time. It allows the reader to see, hear and sense the story’s drama moment-to-moment. One of the most common errors beginning writers make is to summarize events rather than realize them as moments.”
I was written a critique on a forum for writers that I used too much dialogue and not enough one-man-show narrative. But I agree with you and your source. I prefer to tell (write) the story or the novel with dialogues.