A common mistake novice writers make and I was once no different is the fact they tend to tell us everything that’s going on.
Let’s think about something for a minute.
Have you ever finished a book that told in favor of showing?
I think I put the book down within a few seconds and wondered why on Earth anyone would bother to buy such a piece of work.
Now, for those authors who showed everything in action, now we’re making progress.
Some might state many of the classics did some telling and throat clearing and they’re right, it worked for the classics.
It doesn’t work today.
Look, during the age of the classics, there wasn’t competition.
Imagine living in a world with no TV, internet, iPad, phones, and in some cases, movie theaters and radios.
The only other form of entertainment was to see a play or attend a concert…and no, the good music didn’t exist back then. Well, I don’t mind classical music, so I would’ve found concerts entertaining. Or Baroque.
And I’ll listen to neo-Renaissance when I’m at the gym sometimes (Blackmore’s Night rules!) but you get the point, I hope.
Now that we have all these other forms of entertainment, including Netflix binge-watching, we kind of need to buckle down a bit and find an edge in competition.
Being that we write in a saturated market means books and writing books are still relevant. They’re cool, and there are readers of all ages.
But the key is to get your book to stand out in a sea of books.
I’ve touched on ways to do this in the past, like building your own brand (notice the brown and orange all over the place on this blog), the importance of choosing a book cover, and yesterday I hit hard on voice.
Today I’m teaching you how to show and not tell, because it is possible in writing.
It was cold out. It was so cold that the second a snowflake hit the cement it literally turned into ice. If one stepped outside, they sure better hope they were bundled up or else they might get frostbite. It was January and we still had at least another six weeks of this freezing cold in the Ohio Valley.
The above is telling. There’s also a lot of loose writing here. I’m not saying this paragraph should be axed, but it must be edited for the reader to feel anything.
Shia pulled three times on her car door’s handle before it flung open. She tucked her hands into her coat’s sleeves and folded her arms until warmth spread through her fingers and the numbness evaporated. She’ll never forget her gloves at her mother’s house again unless she begged for a case of frostbite. Six more weeks of this in the Ohio Valley.
Notice how much I’m showing the reader in this example. Shia pulls three times, indicating the car door is frozen shut. She’s out in the cold because a) she’s wearing a coat and b) she tucks her gloveless hands into her coat sleeves. She’s frustrated about forgetting her gloves.
Cues the reader picks up on that I’m not even telling:
1. She’s cold.
2. She’s frustrated.
3. She’s dwelling on the long winter.
Now, some novice writers still might show this in the second paragraph. The only problem is many will still write the first paragraph, which tells everything. The truth is the first paragraph isn’t necessary as the second shows the reader without the author telling them.
It was Seneca’s seventeenth birthday. She climbed out of bed, still unable to believe she’s seventeen today. Wow. This last year and a half felt like an eternity, especially since she went from being an Untouchable to royalty. Wow, what a journey it’s been. She was amazed and humbled at how far she came in such a short time. She owed it all to Neo.
Few things wrong with this paragraph, but there’s telling in almost every sentence. It was Seneca’s seventeenth birthday. Still unable to believe she’s seventeen. Felt like an eternity. Went from being an Untouchable to royalty. She was amazed and humbled.
Let’s try this one:
Seventeen today. Unbelievable. Princess Seneca climbed out of bed, smiling in the morning for the first time in forever. Finding Neo and thanking him was today’s first task before spending the day with the people closest to her. Crazy how things change in a year and a half.
Let’s break it down.
First off, when you’re showing something, it should always be in as deep a point of view as you can muster. The first paragraph states Seneca was seventeen. The second starts with seventeen.
The reader knows we’re in Seneca’s point of view so they don’t need to be told that Seneca was this or that or she owed this or owed that.
Notice the throat clearing in the first paragraph. She’d gone from Untouchable to royalty. You just told the whole story.
Paragraph two states Princess Seneca, where the reader knows the girl is royalty. But there’s also a hint of backstory instead of complete backstory. Crazy how things change in a year and a half.
Hint at things and don’t tell everything in the first lines of any work.
If a book has too much throat clearing and backstory I’m going to put it down and read something else.
Because I just read the whole story within the first few sentences.
Tips for Showing
First off, look over your manuscript. Use the ‘find’ tab and find the word ‘was.’ If someone was hot, cold, angry, happy, elated, if they were anything, rephrase it.
Don’t say ‘Jim was hot.’
Try something like ‘sweat poured down Jim’s face as he ripped off this tank top.’
The second sentence shows he’s hot and that it’s also hot outside.
Don’t say ‘Justine was elated.’
Try this: ‘Justine’s jaw dropped as she pulled her friend into a side-hug. “Oh my goodness, these tickets had to have cost you a thousand bucks. I can’t believe I’m going to see the Nordic nations. This is the kindest thing anyone has done for me since high school.”’
Yeah, we know Justine is beyond elated with the second example.
Why Show Rather than Tell?
While it’s true showing takes some thought and even pauses in writing sometimes to get the wording and action correct, your manuscript will read better and it’ll capture a reader’s attention.
Why not compare manuscripts?
Keep your manuscript that’s full of telling and create a second document, rewriting and rephrasing the second one.
Look at scenes where you had to edit the most and you’ll find how much better it reads to show rather than to tell.
You can’t beat showing because it allows the reader to experience what the character is feeling.
Again, where characters are happy, sad, angry, freezing, burning up, heated, nonchalant, whatever adjectives and adverbs describe how a character is feeling or how they’re conducting themselves, stronger nouns and verbs provide an antidote your reader will appreciate.
Start showing and stop telling.