Show me the … err, action?

As you may (or indeed may not) have worked out from the title, this blog is about that age old piece of writing advice: “show don’t tell”. This blog is actually a part of a wider series of blogs on implementing deep POV (from this little beauty of a book by Marcy Kennedy), but “showing vs telling” goes much further than just deep POV. It is at the cornerstone of writing, whatever writing perspective is chosen, and it is therefore very important.

It’s also something I really struggle to get worked up about as a reader, which is a challenge. But as I’ve already concluded in an earlier blog, this is about being an author and not about being a reader. I shall get back in my box.

Now, it’s time (apologies in advance) to “show” my hand.

Just a quick recap:

  • The first blog considered whether deep POV was necessary in my writing at all;
  • The second then asked how many perspectives were optimal;
  • The third looks at some of the statistics from the deep POV interrogation of Mandestroy (and also compares with FU);
  • And the fourth blog looks at the effect of the deep POV edit on those same statistics (most notably sentence length).

For the next four blogs, I’m going to go though each of the trouble “areas” in turn.  This month it’s showing vs. telling.

What is showing vs. telling?

Hmm. This is something that a lot of writers grapple with, myself included, which actually makes it quite hard to define. However, with my new deep POV hat on, I’m going to have go.

Put simply, this problem occurs when the author “tells” the reader something rather than “showing” it; which is officially the worst explanation ever. But what does this mean? That’s the real question.

Ultimately, if the reader is being told about an action, then that is a problem. What sort of action, I hear you cry? Well, any action. The act of running or swinging a bat or kissing someone springs to mind, but these cause less of a problem. As a writer, you will naturally show this happening, and indeed get down any reactions on the page too. This is what we see everyday, and so this is harder to mess up from a telling vs. showing perspective.

But what about the act of thinking? This is where show versus tell really gets a bit dirty. Here’s an example to clarify.

  • I am running.
  • I am thinking.

These are both simple statements, and could both be construed as “telling” what’s going on. But there is a subtle difference. In the correct context, and within a body of prose, the statement “I am running” could be enough to empower the reader into seeing the act (it is easy to imagine someone running). With “I am thinking”, this is not really the case. Thinking what? How does someone actually look when they think? Everyone’s different, and whilst most people have a similar “running” look (I said most), a “thinking” look can be wide and varied. How do you look when you think? I think I look absent, but I know other people who look like they’re in need of the lavatory when they think. And actually, is how we look whilst thinking really important? Isn’t it what we’re thinking that’s important? (Of course, you can argue that it’s actually where one is running to that is important, which is why it’s such a challenging area. But for now, let’s leave it at that.)

So that’s a part of it. And yet I don’t think it’s perfect. The other aspect to think about is authorial distance.

The statement “I am running” is something that may enter an internal dialogue. In other words, it is something our “character” (and importantly not our author) might think (albeit, we may expect it to be embellished with other thoughts and questions). But ask yourself this: how often would you say to yourself: “I am thinking”? You don’t, do you? Instead you just think about stuff.

And this is probably the nub of it: that telling creates a distance between the reader and the character, and any such distance is fatal. A reader wants to be absorbed into the character; it is characters that make stories after all. If the reader is distanced from the character, then it can read like a text book. And no-one likes text books. They remind us of school. Or instruction manuals. Hence a fail.

Which leads me to an unrelated point…

Apologies for this slight diversion, but something has just twigged and I need to write it down!

If a novel reads like a text book because of authorial distance, then the only person likely to enjoy it is going to be interested in the wider subject matter and the setting – after all, that’s why we read text books or instruction manuals. Now, if I’m writing about 21st century Bristol, there might be enough “meat” there for a local to stay engaged. But in fantasy, often the setting is made up and so you cannot rely on setting to engage a reader. True, fantasy settings can be very interesting, but only through the experiences of a strong character. As with all fiction, it is the character that makes the story.

Hence I conclude that good fantasy novels have to have strong characters at their core, and of course, most of them do. It’s kind of obvious, but that’s an interesting stream of thought. And here’s a question: do fantasy novels have to have stronger characters than mainstream fiction with a common setting? I don’t know, but…

How bad is the showing vs. telling?

Well, as I have alluded to, this is something I struggle to get too wound up about as a reader. Of course, if something reads like a text book, then I will switch off, but the odd lapse into telling… For example: “she felt”; “he knew”; etc… I think I can let that lie.

But this isn’t about me. This is about readers. So how bad was Mandestroy? Well, 219 out of 2,984 sentences had “show vs. tell” errors in them, which amounts to about 7% (there were 226 errors in total, suggesting that 7 sentences had more than one!) I have no idea whether that is good or bad, but it’s still a lot of sentences.

What next? Let’s throw down some examples, shall we?

Exhibit A

But then he considered another angle, and his face contorted in confusion.

We have the face contorting here, so it’s not outright “telling”, but it’s not very rich either. How does a face contort with confusion?

But then he scrunched up his face and furrowed his brow.

First things first, this is shorter. Nice. And now we get a sense of what he’s doing: he’s scrunching his face up as the confusion beds down. We’ve also removed the “from another angle” bit. In context, the reader should get this without the nudging. He’s confused, so that means he must see something else which blurs the matter.

Exhibit B

He had a curious side to him, like Delfin herself.

I’ve chosen this one because I’m currently writing Delfin’s story: The Dark Side of the Stone! But back to the point: here we are told he’s curious. What does that mean? It’s quite obvious really.

He liked to understand things, just like Delfin did.

Now, this is one that I’d probably skim over as a reader, not batting an eye-lid. But seeing them side by side, I can see why the second iteration is more powerful. At the pace of reading, it would slip through the eye of the reader much easier, and we do instinctively feel closer to Kantal. Just a little change, but a weight of impact.

Exhibit C

Kantal felt the snigger at his back; the twitter of a dozen scheming aristocrats.

“Kantal felt” is instantly distancing. It also doesn’t actually make sense – you wouldn’t feel a snigger unless the “sniggerer” was a giant with gale-force breath. Here’s the re-write.

There was a snigger at his back; the twitter of a dozen scheming aristocrats.

Clean; simple; factual. And at pace, it should slide easier into the reader’s mind. This is another one I’d probably let go as a reader, but it does feel better post-edit.

Exhibit D

But not all edits distil the text into something shorter. Here’s an example where we lengthen the writing:

This was Kantal’s plan, his genius, and each detail made him tingle with nervousness.

Put simply, why is he tingling with nervousness? Tingling is fine, but there must be more to it than that? Let’s expand:

This was his plan, his genius, and he tingled at the beautiful details. He hoped these powerful men would see it the same way.

Ah, so he is tingling because the beautiful details excite him, but also because he is afraid the others may not see it the same way as him. Nice. And the lengthening of the text comes because we are now showing what is causing the tingling sensation.

Exhibit E

One final example to show that this process really can lengthen the text. Here it is:

He was calm, or at least on the face of it he was calm.

Okay, so you seem calm. But why? Show me why?

He stared on, refusing to let his gaze waver. His eyes were focused on a specific section of the fog-bank, which swirled and stretched in the subtle wind.

We still don’t know why, but we know a lot more. He’s holding himself steadfast, and he’s focused in a very particular location. That is where the excitement / fear / whatever is going to come from will come from. Hopefully this means the reader will want to read on to find out more!

In conclusion

I am certainly prone to telling, which is not surprising when I openly admit to not being overly sensitive to it. But the tools on offer in that little book have really helped, and I’m definitely happy with the edits. Thanks Marcy.

Next time…

… we will look at errors in the point of view (affectionately known as “head-hopping”). Until then, keep in touch by signing up for the newsletter here.

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