Show vs Tell
This week I want to talk to you about this concept of showing versus telling. It's important, and writers are still not understanding it--and even when you do, it's impossible to see it in your own work a lot of the time. To fully understand this can take YEARS of writing but not to worry, this is why I am here.
You have submitted your manuscript or a few chapters or even one chapter to a critique partner, a writing contest, a workshop, a story coach/developmental editor (LIKE ME!! CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE), and you get the feedback,
You're telling, not showing. Or simple a circle around your words with a scribble SHOW DON'T TELL!!
And you want to pull your hair out!!
It's maddening; trust me, I've been there, and I'm like, "but I am telling you a story, right?" Haha, sadly, that's not what it means.
To put it simply, it means info-dumping and being mechanical about the way you are telling a story.
Here is an example from FRIENDS, season 1 Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe are doing a male cleansing ritual, and they are burning photos from their past of men they dated. Monica tosses one in, and she says, "the I win, guy, I was with him for 3 months, and I didn't get to win once!" Cue laughter from the audience.
Why did they laugh? Because she told some hilarious joke? No, because what she said painted a very clear picture.
What did we learn from that one sentence? "I didn't get to win once."
Monica dated a guy who didn't satisfy her sexually; he was a bit of a narcissist, she wasn't happy with him, and it also goes a level deeper because she showed us how she felt about the situation.
Everything goes back to how characters feel about a situation.
Now imagine if Monica had said. "I went out with this guy; he was terrible in bed, I never came because he only cared about himself, and he always finished first, and that was that. I was so unhappy and wanted more."
BORING as hell.
And yet, this is what writers do all the time.
Then they get the feedback; stop telling and show us how Monica felt, and sadly they write the same thing and add something about her body language. She slumped as she spoke about him.
Does that make sense?
You show through character, not physically showing us. I mean, yes, body language is important but only to show character.
On THE BIG BANG THEORY, Sheldon always stands up perfectly straight, as he is a rigid perfectionist of a character. Penny is always slumping and is generally lounging around in a more comfortable way because that is who she is.
I'm not saying to not ever show that but just illustrating what this means.
When Bella moves to Forks from Phoenix, she doesn't go on and on about how much she hates rain; she makes one statement to Edward about how she doesn't enjoy anything cold or wet. That was clear. We also see her slip on the ice; she isn't used to the weather up there.
Sophie Kinsella, the author of the Shopaholic series and many other hilarious books, does an amazing job of showing character while telling us the story; she does it so effortlessly that you don't even realize it's happening.
READ this from CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC by Sophie Kinsella
image BBC 2- Confessions of a Shopaholic - movie 2006
READ BELOW the excerpt from the book bu Sophie Kinsella
Ok. don't panic. Don't panic. It's only a VISA bill. It's a piece of paper, a few numbers. I mean, just how scary can a few numbers be? I stare out of the office window at a bus driving down Oxford Street, willing myself to open the white envelope sitting on my cluttered desk. It's only a piece of paper, I tell myself for the thousandth time. And I'm not stupid, am I? I know exactly how much this VISA bill will be. Sort of. Roughly. It'll be about ... £200. Three hundred, maybe. Yes, maybe £300. Three-fifty, max. I casually close my eyes and start to tot up. There was that suit in Jigsaw. And there was dinner with Suze at Quaglinos. And there was that gorgeous red and yellow rug. The rug was £200, come to think of it. But it was definitely worth every penny — everyone's admired it. Or, at least, Suze has. And the Jigsaw suit was on sale — 30 percent off. So that was actually saving money. I open my eyes and reach for the bill. As my fingers hit the paper, I remember new contact lenses. Ninety-five pounds. Quite a lot. But, I mean, I had to get those, didn't I? What am I supposed to do, walk around in a blur?
Now, let's break it down.
Ok. don't panic. Don't panic. It's only a VISA bill. It's a piece of paper; a few numbers. I mean, just how scary can a few numbers be? What do we know? This woman loves to spend money and is probably in a lot of debt. I stare out of the office window at a bus driving down Oxford Street, willing myself to open the white envelope sitting on my cluttered desk. It's only a piece of paper, I tell myself for the thousandth time. And I'm not stupid, am I? I know exactly how much this VISA bill will be. This speaks to how she handles things; she is having to will herself to open it because she knows it won't be good. This shows us that she probably doesn't have the money to pay the bill. Sort of. Roughly. She definitely doesn't have the money, and probably this is a problem for her- the spending of money she shouldn't. It'll be about ... £200. Three hundred, maybe. Yes, maybe £300. Three-fifty, max. We learn that she is justifying the spending with the price, so we learn more about how she thinks. I casually close my eyes and start to tot up. There was that suit in Jigsaw. And there was dinner with Suze at Quaglinos. And there was that gorgeous red and yellow rug. The rug was £200, come to think of it. But it was definitely worth every penny — everyone's admired it. Or, at least, Suze has. She is a little insecure and seeks admiration from friends, but only one has. This shows us that she isn't super popular and doesn't have heaps of people over; she's probably a bit young. And the Jigsaw suit was on sale — 30 percent off. So that was actually saving money. Ha!! There it is. She is now showing us how she ended up in all this debt, her justifying. I open my eyes and reach for the bill. As my fingers hit the paper I remember new contact lenses. Ninety-five pounds. Quite a lot. But, I mean, I had to get those, didn't I? So what am I supposed to do, walk around in a blur? More justification for spending money she doesn't have. Now we know exactly WHO we are reading about.
Woman, youngish-probably fresh out of college, in massive debt, loves to spend money, is insecure, and has no idea how to pay it off with one best friend.
The writer could have easily done this.
I'm so in debt that I have no idea how I will ever pay it off. My credit card bill is there staring at me, judging me, and I don't want to open it, but I know that I should face the music. So I tear it open and start to list in my head all the reasons I needed all that stuff.
Oh. My. God, I'm already bored out of my head--and I wrote that!! LOL, I hope that this example shows you how you can really do a good job in showing, not telling us who a character is.
Now, you may be thinking, but I don't write in the first person, and the third person is all about telling.
These are the same principles in action.
Look at the Harry Potter series, or Marian Keyes SUSHI FOR BEGINNERS. Both of those stories are in the third-person and they still aren't telling us by just telling us. Instead, in every passage, they show us WHO the characters are by using words and sentences that show us how they feel about the things that are happening to them.
One of my mentors, Steve Kaplan who coaches comedy writing always talks about how everything comes back to character.
Lisa Cron, another coach I've studied under talks about the character's misbelief in her book WIRED FOR STORY.
Everything comes back to WHO the character is, and thus also bringing up the question, who is the best person/narrator for your book, but that is a horse of a different color.
Okay, go write, and show instead of telling.
BTW please don't get stuck on this if you are drafting, you can fix in revisions. So be mindful but it's okay to just write through, in fact, I encourage that, then when you go back you can punch it up.
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