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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

6 Tips for Showing vs. Telling

Okay, so we all know that it's much better to show than to tell in our writing. But how do we do that? It's Writing 101, but it's also very hard to explain.

Disclaimer: As always, this is by no means a comprehensive list of dos and don'ts, but rather just some things I've picked up on after four years of being in a writer's group.

1. Show if you can, but if you must tell, don't do both! I see so often someone nail the "show" part and then follow it up by telling what they just showed.

Example: Timmy's face grew red and he pounded his fist on the table. He was angry.

Come on, now. Trust your audience a little bit, here. The second sentence is completely unnecessary. You did a brilliant job of showing that emotion in the first sentence. Leave it at that.

2. Work it into dialogue. You can have your characters talk about how they're feeling, but keep this to a minimum as it can turn cheesy or obvious very quickly. I would only recommend this if the character is a) hiding their emotions for some reason which makes it difficult to show them and/or b) not your point of view character.

Example (bad) : "How do you feel, Katie?"
                         "It makes me sad, Joan."

Obviously this needs to be done with a bit more delicacy than that, but if done right and sparingly, it's not necessarily a bad thing. I did this at one point in my novel, Persistence of Vision. I had two men talk. (Not just about their feelings because that might have been weird.) They were best buds and one of them was particularly stoic and not big on expressing emotion. But the conversation wasn't just about feelings, as I said. Rather, it was about much more complicated things and I just worked some hidden emotions in. When I work-shopped the chapter, I made a point of asking if I was telling too much. The universal reaction was that the conversation worked well.

3. Verbal Story-Telling. For the most part, personal history and back story needs to be revealed gradually. But, if you have a quick history, legend, past baggage, etc. that you want your audience to know about, but it's not relevant to reveal bit by bit, verbal story-telling is a good way to go. So it would go something like this:

Example:  Bob: "So why is that person the way he is?"
               Fred: "Oh, that's because of what happened three years ago. Let me explain...
               (Launches into a few paragraphs of verbal narrative to tell the story.)

Suddenly, both the characters and your audience knows the history without you "telling" it in the narrative itself. Robert Jordan is a master at this in his Wheel of Time series, such as when Moiraine tells the villagers the history of Manetheren, and when Lord Agelmar explains the history of Malkier. It feels very natural and your audience leans forward to listen every bit as much as your characters do.

4. For emotion, think reaction. In my first example, Timmy's face grew red and he pounded his fist on the table. From that, most people would get that he was angry. If you ever find yourself telling an emotion (i.e. he or she was angry, sad, happy, giddy, retarded, etc.) stop and think about how you can describe the emotion. With the exception of smiles and tears, it can be trickier than it sounds. If someone feels abandoned, how do you show that?
a) Ask your character. If they feel x, how do they act? If y happens to them, how do they react?
b) Don't tell the emotion, but show the reaction. Show them punching the wall, rather than saying they're angry. With something complex like abandonment, so a reaction that reflects that emotion. After all, even complex feelings boil down to basic emotions. Does the abandonment make the character feel sad? Angry? Have them react.
c) If the emotion still isn't clear, add what I like to call a "this I believe" line. Have them react in the way they would to the emotion they're feeling, but without any explanation. Then have them give a clarifying statement. This can be done in their heads or out loud to another character they're interacting with.

Example: If I'm trying to convey that Barney feels abandoned...

Barney shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. Scowling, he stomped down the alley. Fred ran up beside him, talking a mile a minute and waving his hands around, going on and on about the circus. He didn't notice Barney's scowl.
"Shut up, Fred!" Barney finally yelled. "No one cares about the stupid circus!"
"What's wrong, Barney?"
"Nothing, I'm going home."
"But you can't just leave."
"Get used to it, Fred. That's what people do. They leave."

At no point did I say, "Barney felt abandoned." Especially if before this we see someone leave him, it's obvious how he's feeling. You don't have to explain it.

5. Showing is really all about trust. Trust that your audience is human enough and receptive enough to pick up on the cues of human behavior.

6. This is also a great job for a critique group. If you have a decent group, and they're not understanding the emotion you're trying to convey, they'll let you know. Trust me!

Well, hope this helps some of you. Admit it, now. Who was picturing a big purple dinosaur in that last example? :D

Hosted by The Geek Twins

Co-Hosted by L.K.Hill, Just a Dash of Geek and Comic Book and Movie Reviews

Come join us for an uber-fun blog hop on January 14th! 

Hosted by the awesome Geek Twins, this blog hop is all about our favorite aliens. To participate, put your name in the linky below. Then on January 14, 2013 just write a post about your favorite alien of all time (Martian or not) and why you love them.

From Evolution Movie
If you don't have a blog, feel free to leave your answer in the comments, or just hop through to meet new bloggers and read some fun posts. 

I'm SO excited for this! I participate in a number of blog hops, but I've never hosted before, and this is such a fun topic. I know I'm going to have a hard time choosing just one favorite alien. There are so many great ones! 

Feel free to put the badge on your blog, and help us spread the word. Let's give our alien buddies as much love as possible this January! :D

Random Movie Quotes (RMQ)!

Yesterday's RMQ was: "What kind of place is this where you almost mean what you say? Where laws almost work? How can you live like that?"

This was said by Djimon Honsou in the movie Amistad. His character was named Cinque. Seriously everyone. Best anti-slavery movie EVER! You have to see it if you haven't. But bring tissues. It's a definite tear-jerker.

Today's RMQ is:
Average foot speed over uneven ground barring injuries is 4 miles-per-hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want from each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at fifteen miles.
 One point for actor, one for film, one for character. Good luck! :D


  1. "He was angry!" LOL Really? I thought he was feeling joyful

  2. Helpful article. And yes, I was totally thinking of the dinosaur. Poor Barney.

  3. Count me in for the Alien bloghop. Aliens rock!