Show Don’t Tell, What the Hell?
The following piece was written by Kate Foster, for the Women Writers, Women’s Books (WWWB) Website. WWWB are an online literary magazine by and about contemporary women writers from around the world. Women Writers, Women’s Books was launched in 2011 to be another platform for contemporary women writers and authors around the world writing in English.
Their mission is to encourage and promote the visibility of women writers and are particularly interested in the edges, the intersections between genres, nationalities, languages, arts, cultures.
For more information about WWWB, go to: www.booksbywomen.com.
SHOW DON’T TELL, WHAT THE HELL?
by Kate Foster
Show, don’t freaking tell, people! Perhaps the most overused term in fiction editing right now.
And I bet you’re bored of hearing it; fed up with checking out pretty much every single writing blog ever and seeing this advice; constantly wondering what the heck this stupid phrase is, and why it’s sooooo stupendously important.
Sure you are, even if it is just a teensy tiny amount. And you’ll find that most aspiring (and some published) writers are feeling exactly the same. So, let us begin analysing this hot topic together.
Telling comes in all sorts of forms, and although perhaps the writing world has gone slightly Show-Don’t-Tell crazy, it is a pretty important element of writing that can take time to master. But when executed accurately in your work, it can provide that monumental – and essential – leap from good book to unstoppable, addictive and grabby-hands bestseller.
This blog is the first in a series, and has been written by me, an editor, to give any and all newbie writers a couple of examples of where telling typically turns up in manuscripts, and how it can be switched around to show the reader the same details, elevating so many writing elements in one hit. Blog one, this one, will start with the two most common and obvious faux pas’ that I see, but I promise to return at a later date to delve into some others. Let’s begin.
The most common form of telling I come across in manuscripts is ’emotional telling’. This is where the author takes it upon themselves to tell the reader how a character is feeling. Essentially cutting out the character for a minute and reminding the reader that there’s this mysterious other voice, this third party, floating around, occasionally butting in and taking over.
How rude, I say!
Getting straight down to business, here are some very simple examples of emotional telling: 1. Harry was sad the girl was dead. 2. Ben was delighted at his new success. 3. The footprints made Sarah feel curious. 4. Martha didn’t want to date Mark any more.
Thanks, Ms. Author, but you know, I personally would like to carry on engaging with your characters, and so please let me see how they’re feeling. After all, you’ve already chucked me in the scene with them, beckoned and welcomed me in, so indulge me, let me watch how they react to this situation you’ve thrown at them. Bog off. Please observe…
1. A hollow pain erupted in Harry’s chest; tears threatened to spill. How did this happen? Could he have stopped her death? 2. Ben punched the air before mouthing a silent ‘Yes’. Success was finally his for the taking. 3. What the …? Sarah frowned and leant forward, her eyes studying the shape and size of the footprints. 4. Martha dragged her hands down her face. Urgh. Dumping Mark was going to suck, but she couldn’t stay with him any longer, not unless she wanted a miserable existence.
And there we go. From telling the reader how those characters felt in the first examples, to showing them through facial expression, body language and inner thought, the author has made a mile, a thousand miles of difference. They’ve allowed the reader to see, to feel, to hear precisely what emotion is spreading through that character.
The writing is now engaging, clearer, better; it’s become a movie running through the reader’s head. They are a part of the scene. The author has now donned their invisibility cloak and vanished. Bravo.
Next up, and another very common telling trap, is through the use of ‘Filter Verbs’. And, in truth, a super easy fix when you recognise these pesky terrors.
Filter verbs do pretty much what they say on the tin; they are filtering down the reader’s engagement, removing them a step or two from the action, shoving a brick wall between the movie they’re part of and the fact they’re actually just reading a book.
This isn’t good. When a reader is reading a book, they already know which character’s eyes they’re viewing the action through – well, they really really should – so the author doesn’t need to tell them how the images, emotions, thoughts and experiences are being … erm … experienced. Not sure what I mean? Don’t panic, I will elaborate.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list of filter verbs. • could see • could hear • could feel • feel • see • hear • look • decide • want • need • choose • think • seem • realise • touch • watch And on and on it goes.
Examples of filter verb use:
1. Harry heard the sirens and then watched the police and ambulance arrive. 2. Ben decided to call his mum and tell her the good news. 3. Sarah wanted to examine the footprints further, but couldn’t. 4. Martha could see how upset Mark was but she realised she couldn’t stop mid-dump.
What the author has done here is told the reader that these characters are seeing, hearing, deciding and so on. But it’s pointless, because the reader already knows the characters are the ones doing these things. So how can they fix this?
1. Sirens. Two different kinds. Harry stepped back behind the tree. Flashing lights rounded the corner; an ambulance and police car skidded to a halt beside the body. 2. He had to share the news. Like right now. Ben grabbed his cell and dialled Mum’s number. 3. Too late. People were approaching. Sarah cursed under her breath and backed up. The footprints would have to wait. 4. Mark’s shoulders drooped; he sighed heavily. Martha closed her eyes, digging deep for the strength to continue. She’d started, stopping mid-dump would be wimpy.
Taa-daa! No more filter verbs. All gone. And look at the difference! The author has climbed back inside the movie screen and straight inside the characters’ heads.
They experience first-hand precisely what the character is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking; the story teller has disappeared completely. No more telling.
Still not sure what on earth I’m babbling about? Go and read other Show, Don’t Tell blogs. There are heaps of them dotted all over the internet, and they are all helpful. Or, if you have a specific question, tweet me @winellroad! I love a good SDT issue!
Until next time, keep on showing!
Kate is a freelance editor and acquisitions editor at Lakewater Press and regularly mentors new (and old) writers in contests such as Pitch Wars. Her debut middle grade novel, Winell Road: Beneath the Surface, recently became the 2015 Solo Medalist Winner in the New Apple Literary Awards.
Visit her website for more information here www.katejfoster.com