First off, for anyone in my neck of the woods (lower upstate New York), I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival from 10:00 to 4:00’ish (I sometimes leave a little early to catch my train) on September 24th, along with many other great kids’ book writers. Details are here on the website when you click on News and then on Appearances. If you can come, I’d love to see you, and, since I’ll be there all day, we’ll have time to chat.
On to the post. On May 26, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, My mother, who is my main beta reader, always tells me that when I write a story I always tell instead of show what is happening. The only thing is I don’t know how to show instead of tell. Can anyone help explain to me how I can achieve this?
Christie V Powell offered these ideas and examples: I think Gail described it as a camera that zooms in. If you’re telling, it’s zoomed out so you get a big panorama picture with few details. If you show, you’re zooming in so the details are prominent.
Tell: Tess climbed the tree and looked for danger.
Show: Tess’s fingers grasped the rough bark as she heaved herself upward, ears alert for any hint of danger.
First two lines of my WIP:
For Keita Sage, crossing the valley floor without detection was the easy part of the rescue. (tell)
She had darted across the brush, her feet sure despite the predawn darkness, but now they trembled inside their awkward, bulky shoes. (show)
For me, portraying emotion is where you really want to be showing.
Jasper was afraid.
Jasper didn’t speak, but a strange rattling sound came from his direction. It took her a moment to realize what it was. The wooden feet of Jasper’s sofa were shaking against the floor. At last he choked out, “Why are you telling me? I can’t go in there.”
And I wrote, A terrific example. Just naming the feeling usually falls flat. I love how the emotion gets transmitted to the sofa.
In showing all the senses may get into the act. My camera lens comparison that Christie V Powell mentioned highlights the visual, but we can also bring in the auditory, as she does with the clattering sofa legs. Smell and touch may be involved, too. Christie V Powell uses touch in her example of the rough bark. She didn’t include smell–which is fine because we don’t want to follow a checklist–but Tess might also have picked up the earthy scent of the forest.
In addition to the sensory, we can also think about the temporal element, which Christie V Powell demonstrated (showed) in her examples. Please notice that her telling examples are shorter than her showing ones. So we can make another analogy. On a tape recorder, telling means pressing the fast-forward button.
And we need that button, which moves a narrative along. If we were to show everything, our stories would be slower than real time and our readers would slip into a coma. We can’t avoid all telling. Telling is baked into language. We are telling creatures. We just need to shift back and forth from one mode to the other.
So how do we move from the more instinctive telling method to the acquired showing way? And how do we know when we should?
One of the effects of showing is to draw our reader inside our character, to make him see what she sees, hear what she hears, etc. Let’s imagine Tess in the forest on the run from Robin Hood and his not-so-merry band, who are convinced she’s going to turn them in to the Sheriff of Nottingham–because lately they’ve been stealing from everyone and giving to themselves.
Often, when I’m writing a scene and I’m not sure about the environment, I use google images. I might google “forest floor” and noodle around. I might also look at forest images, especially old-growth forest, which Sherwood Forest probably would be. I might google “English songbirds” to discover what she might hear. The point is, I want to be inside Tess in that forest.
From my Tess story, I probably know what season it is and what time of day. I probably also know if Tess is a woodlands girl or if she’s spent her life in a castle and a village, and whether or not she’s following a road or a path.
Once I’m prepared and maybe have jotted down a few notes I can start writing.
If Tess is inexperienced in the woods, that can up the ante. She takes a step. The dead leaves are deafening, sound like they’re shouting in dry voices, “Here I am!” She’s listening to her own noise and trying also to hear the sound of hooves or a wild boar crashing through the underbrush, homing in on the scent of her fear.
We’ve covered sound and smell. What does she see? It may be noon, but the forest canopy may be so dense that the light is murky. We may describe from our google images, or we may go into an actual forest if one is nearby. If it’s day she can probably see enough to make her way, but there may be no distance vision. She may imagine the worst lying straight ahead.
If we want to introduce touch as well, Christie V Powell mentioned the rough feel of the bark. She can knock against a tree. We can make her trip on a tree root and encounter the forest floor up close and personal.
We can–should–include her thoughts as part of our showing. She may be nervously narrating everything she’s doing, as in, Now I step gingerly but sound like an elephant. Now I broadcast exactly where I am. Now my heart rises and catapults out of my mouth. Or she may be bargaining frantically. If I survive I will never say a mean word to anyone. I won’t complain. Or something more positive, like, Mother says I’m good in a pinch. Father tells me I’m all determination.
And we can show the physical side of emotions as Christie V Powell does with the couch legs.
In our first draft of a scene in showing, we may write more than we need, but that’s okay. We just snip here and there when we revise.
So that’s the how. Slow down, inhabit our characters, and write the 3-D version, plus sense- and smell-a-rama. And taste, if taste comes into it.
Now for when to show. Christie V Powell says at moments of heightened emotion, and I agree. Also, when important plot moments are happening. If our main characters are robbing a bank, we can’t skip much, which means showing.
Here are some other times:
To heighten tension. The scene in the forest is nerve-racking because of showing.
To reveal relationships. For example, dialogue is showing, although characters may tell each other things.
To reveal character. In our showing of Tess in the forest, we convey more about her. Does she plow ahead or inch along? Is her throat dry? Does she stop to drink from her canteen? Or does she fail to think about dehydration. Did she forget to fill her canteen?
Showing can make us aware of the gaps in our plotting. When we show, we can’t jump over the parts that don’t really work. It keeps us honest.
But telling is a part of creating a story, too. So, when do we tell?
It gets confusing, because telling is in everything. Let’s take three words in one of Christie V Powell’s examples of showing: Jasper didn’t speak. Well, I’d argue that that’s a moment of telling. I guess if we were going to show it we might say, No sound issued from Jasper’s throat, which seems unnecessarily long to me. So maybe it’s more accurate to compare predominantly showing versus predominantly telling.
So when should we mostly tell?
When we want to cover ground quickly. Maybe we want to summarize events that the reader needs to know, but that don’t hold a lot of drama. Or maybe we want to move time along. We have a stretch that has to be accounted for during which not much significant happens, so we may write something like, Tess was on the alert, but three weeks passed in the village of Sherwood without a single new theft.
When we want to provide background economically, because telling is economic. Maybe Tess’s childhood friend arrives in Sherwood village and we want the reader to know a little about their mutual history but we don’t want to go into a full, showing flashback. We might just write, It was Fiona who taught Tess to never underestimate an enemy.
When we want to comment on the action, as in this famous beginning of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. A bold statement like this is less common in contemporary novels, but we can still use telling to guide the reader. I do at the beginning of Ella Enchanted with That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not mean to lay a curse on me. By calling Lucinda a fool I influence the reader’s perspective. Notice that commentary can be delivered by a first-person voice as well as an omniscient narrator.
These are the uses I can think of, but there may be more, which I encourage you to post for everyone to add to the list.
Here are four prompts. When you show, remember to slow down and to include sensory details:
∙ Use mostly showing to write Tess’s scene in the woods, trying to evade Robin Hood.
∙ Use telling to inform the reader of Tess’s initial awareness of Robin Hood.
∙ Switch to mostly showing and rewrite that first awareness as a scene.
∙ Take Austen’s first sentence and make it into an entire scene written in mostly showing. Demonstrate to the reader what Austen merely (and elegantly) declares–that every mother with at least one daughter and every busybody starts matchmaking the moment a wealthy bachelor shows up.
Have fun, and save what you write!
Also, this came in to the last post from Bethany a few hours ago, and I’d hate for it to get lost:
ATTENTION!!! PLEASE GIVE FEEDBACK!!! Thank you.
Anyone, but specifically Gail: I am writing my research paper on the purpose of fiction. Please tell me your opinions. What is the purpose of fiction? Is it to entertain? Is educating important? Do you think reading about fictional characters can change us and make us better people?
Thanks so much!
I wrote, ATTENTION BACK! When is your paper due?
And Christie V Powell wrote, How much time do you have? You might consider reading “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker, which addresses these questions. However, it’s huge. It took me weeks to read, and I rarely take more than a day to read a book.
Short answers: Yes, it entertains. Education can be important, but can’t be too blatant. Novels ask questions, especially big moral/theme questions, but leave the reader to answer them on their own. Yes, I think there are scientific studies that say that reading makes people more empathetic because it helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes.