Episode 27: Show and Tell: Finding Balance is Key to A Great Manuscript
Hello and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster. Today I thought we'd chat about one of my favorite writing topics, showing and telling.
Anyone who has received a critique from me has likely read the word "Telling" in track changes. Sometimes I add a note along with it to give you ideas as to how you might fix it, especially if it's a particularly good moment that simply needs unpacking. That's another note writers may see from me often: "unpack this". I think at least one writer I work with now hates the very thought of unpacking anything!
Recently I worked with an author who said to me, "I don't know how to show." As you can imagine my first thought was, "Huh?" But then after that meanie in my head who is quick to respond took a seat, my logical mind spoke, "They know how to show, they're just intimidated by the thought of doing it." Now, this thought may or may not be true in this particular author's case. I've read more of their work and know they're capable of showing. It may just be something they don't actively think about.
The thing about showing is that you do have to think about it. A lot. Because it matters how you describe things. It isn't enough to say, "She was embarrassed." We need to see her face color, see her body curl in on itself in an effort to become smaller, and we need to see her wish she could become a part of the wallpaper, undetectable to the naked eye. Because, as Noah Lukeman says, "It is the writer's job to show us what his characters are like, not by what he says about them, or what they say about one another, but by their actions" (Lukeman 119).
Last year when I began this podcast, I did a little episode about eliminating thought verbs from your narrative (https://aboutthiswritingthing.podbean.com/e/eliminating-thought-verbs/). I'd recently read a 2013 article by Chuck Palahniuk on the topic and was working through my own narrative to do as he instructed, eliminate and unpack. Because my novel is written in first person present tense, there's quite a bit of "tell:" mixed in with the "showing", so you can imagine how much fun it was to go through and take out those telling parts that didn't serve my story.
Oh yeah, you heard me correctly, I left some telling in on purpose! This is because I'm a firm believer that sometimes telling works and the key to a good narrative is finding a balance that works.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of how to use them, let's look at what showing and telling are. One of my favorite (and spot on) quotes comes from E.L. Doctorow, "The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." In other words, a historian is going to recant for you the events that happened, but the novelist is going to make you feel as though you were there. At least, they should.
AutoCrit defines showing as the use of "description and action to help the reader experience the story" while telling is simply stating what's happening. To "show" is to add depth to a moment. This is what I try to impress upon every writer who gets that dreaded "Telling" note from me.
When revising my own novel I had a system for implementing showing into my narrative, particularly in those places where the telling was stealing all of my narrative's umph.
Take a step back and examine the scene as a moment.
Consider what emotions the character(s) should be experiencing. Are they angry, devastated, overwhelmingly happy? When that question was answered I would think about how I feel in those extreme moments of feeling. How does my body feel when I'm devastated? Empty, heavy, numb. Once the feelings were isolated, I thought of how to describe them as motions and not just emotions.
Write the scene with the motions of emotion (say that 10 times fast) taking center stage.
The key thing to remember when writing is you're not in this to "give your readers information. You want to give them experiences," make them feel what your character is feeling (Browne & King 16). I recently finished The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. It's the story of a slave girl from Jamaica who, under the direction of her master, does unspeakable things and then, when going to England with him, is "gifted" to another man and his wife. I was uncomfortable reading this story, uncomfortable exposed to the harshness of being a Black human in 1820s Jamaica and England. I shudder to think what would have been lost with such a powerful story had Collins merely told her readers about the experiences and not allowed us to be present when Frannie's mistress turns her out or when she is last in her former master's presence. It would've been tragic.
Think about the last book you read. The last really good book you read. What kept you reading? This is assuming you aren't one of those people who can force themselves to read something they don't like. I do not understand those readers! If you don't have me, you don't have me. What types of language did the author use, did they make use of motion? Sara Collins uses a lot of bold words that lash out at the reader, angry and hopeless.
Renni Brown and Dave King give one of the best pieces of advice to the writer seeking to show instead of tell. When in doubt R.U.E. --> Resist the Urge to Explain.
The new writer (my former self included) wants to make sure their readers "get it", that they understand exactly what's going on in the scene and how the character is feeling because they want their readers to see things exactly as they do. They haven't realized yet that reading is interpretation. Not everyone is going to see their characters the way they see them. My first night as a history student dear Dr. Stitt stood in the front of the classroom and wrote across the whiteboard "History is interpretation". When you get right down to it, I think everything is interpretation and we writers will do good to realize that.
Take the movie House of 1000 Corpses for instance. When it came out a lot of people loved that the good guy didn't win. Some people even said it was "refreshing". Personally, I don't want the bad guy to win, so when I watch a movie or read a story or book where the bad guy wins I'm lost to that writer. Bad guys win in real life, I don't want them winning in fiction as well.
So, getting back to the new writer, things will begin to come together when they realize that their readers are not the same as them. They don't think like them, they don't root for the same things they do, and they may not even like the character that the writer adores. Look at Twilight by Stephenie Meyer or Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I've heard so many people say they couldn't stand Bella and Katniss, that they hated being in their POV. Just imagine if Meyer or Collins wrote these stories without leaving room for interpretation of character or their motivations, and just think if they hadn't created compelling secondary characters!
The most important part of this new writer discussion (I keep chasing squirrels) is that the less experienced writer is compelled to tell the reader how they should feel. "She is angry" can be interpreted as the writer telling the reader, "You gotta be angry because she's mad about this." It's like when you boycott something and express to those around you the reason for your boycott and they look at you like you've flipped your lid because they love chicken and pickles! Just like family and friends, our readers may not share our views. So don't spell it out for them. Just give them the story and let them figure out how they feel about it. As Natalie Goldberg says, "Use words like a mirror to reflect the pictures" (Goldberg 76).
This isn't to say that you shouldn't use tell. Tiffany Yates Martin has an entire chapter on showing and telling in her 2020 release, Intuitive Editing. In it she says, "Show and tell often work best together to heighten the reader's emotional engagement.
Take this scene from my novel (Yes, I'm using my work as an example. No, it isn't ego.)
Oliver has kept his distance since my abandoning him out back. It bothers me that I care as much as I do. The lunch rush is a whirlwind with lines stretching around the building outside and almost to the door inside. Becca says it’s the result of two factories nearby that actually give hour lunches. I haven’t known anyone by name, but some faces are familiar. I wonder if I went to high school with them and they’re just as unsettled by my presence as I am by theirs.
There is a lot of telling in this passage. It isn't horrible. It gets the point across, but this follows a very high stress moment where my MC has had an argument with Oliver, her manager and friend. Following my 3 previous referenced points, I took at look at the passage to see how I could revise to make it stronger. This is what I came up with.
Oliver has kept his distance since my abandoning him out back. Why do I care? It’s none of his business why I don’t want to go to a party. He may be an over sharer but I’m certainly not. Yet, there’s that niggle; the little tug from somewhere inside my hardened core that urges me to go to him and make sure he’s okay. Thankfully, the lines stretching across the dining room to the front doors offers a distraction from the internal nudge that keeps trying to persuade me to be human.
“Where did all these people come from?” It is less a question and more my exasperation for how hopeless getting these people served in a timely manner seems.
“It’s the two factories just down the road.” Becca says. “They actually give hour lunches so their people take advantage.”
I haven’t known anyone by name, but some faces are familiar. It’s possible I’m taking the orders of former jocks and emo kids I went to high school with but time has robbed me of their names. From the looks on their faces they’re as unsettled by my presence as I am by theirs.
You see that I've kept some telling there, but I've also opened it up a bit more, given a deeper look into my MC and her inner struggles when it comes to Oliver. Not only that but I've included an exchange between my MC and her co worker, Becca. I did this revision after reading Chuck Palahniuk's 2013 article about eliminating thought verbs. Turns out, when you eliminate thought verbs, you cut out a lot of telling.
So how do you find the "telling" in your manuscript that you need to change? Noah Lukeman says to look for it in character introductions, in places where there is a flurry of events, places where you may have jumps in time, and in your setting descriptions, while Tiffany Yates Martin says to follow the descriptors, look for places where you sum things up that may need a more nuanced approach, and look at the descriptions of your settings and surroundings.
I'll talk more about showing and telling in episode 32. This is a topic we could seriously spend hours talking about because so many writers just don't get it, but, alas, I only have 15 - 20 minutes to talk your ear off. Until then, take a look at your manuscript. Look expressly at the areas where Lukeman and Martin say you're likely to find those trouble telling spots, then unpack the emotions in those spots. Think about how you feel those emotions and how you've witnessed others feel those emotions and stay there while you write out that part of the scene. As Natalie Goldberg says, "When you write, stay in direct connection with the senses and what you're writing about" (Goldberg 75).
That's all I have for you this time. You'll find resources for this episode on my blog at saywordbeller.com. You'll find the direct link in the description below.
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Thank you so much for hanging out with me today.
Take care, keep writing, and I'll catch you later!
Browne, Renni & King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. William Morrow, 2004.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, 2016.
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile. Fireside, 2000.
Martin, Tiffany Yates. Intuitive Editing: A Creative & Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Foxprint Ink, LLC, 2020.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Nuts and Bolts: Thought Verbs. LitReactor, August 12, 2013: https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts-%E2%80%9Cthought%E2%80%9D-verbs