Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Show Don’t Tell: Skin in the Game...Seekerville Welcomes the Grammar Divas!
“Show, don’t tell.” That adage is framed and sitting on top of your monitor. At conferences you search for yet another workshop on the subject. And, any article with those three words in the headline instantly gets read.
You work on the art of showing because you want readers to love and empathize with your characters. You want readers to be invested in your characters. You crave writing a book that can’t be put down for anything… work, laundry, sleep.
You want readers with a little skin in the game!
Showing and telling are integral parts of story writing. So why does telling get such a bad rap and showing all the glory?
Telling is impersonal because you explain to the reader what’s happening. Telling names feelings and lists fact, often going into too much detail, i.e., lots of description and backstory. Instead of “hearing” the character’s voice, the reader hears yours, “telling” the reader what to think and feel. This puts emotional distance between your reader and your characters.
Telling is flat, passive.
If a friend tells you about a good movie, he may go into a few details, action, and dialog, but only from the examples he thought were important. Not the same as going to the movie yourself, is it?
Showing is personal because you get the reader to invest time and emotion, putting the reader right there with the character, thinking and feeling the things the character does. You do this through crawling inside the mind of your POV character and telling the story as he lives it. The reader “hears” the character’s voice, not yours.
Showing is dynamic, active.
Creating a good book, then, is similar to creating a good movie. Instead of good acting and camera shots, you need strong writing—concrete nouns, active verbs, specific details and imagery, and other staples of a confident writer.
Let’s say you have a character—Lucille. Lucille learns her sister has been killed in a tragic car accident. The sister’s children need a good mother, and Lucille wants to fill that role even before she discovers she’s been named their guardian. Except that dirtbag ex-husband of her sister’s shows up, declaring he has seen the error of his ways and he wants to be a proper father. Right.
So you, as author, want to let the reader know how angry Lucille is over this speed bump in “fixing” life for those children.
Telling: You have her call her best friend and explain her feelings. Lucille rants about the dirtbag and then wails, “Can you believe it—the kids want to see him! Oh, I’m so miserable I could just die.”
No kidding. Tell your reader something she doesn’t know! Reruns of Charlie’s Angels are more exciting than this. Diva up! You’re telling. And you need some action for a scene with this much conflict.
Lucille can have a meltdown. Or Lucille can decide this moment is a line in the sand and take charge of the situation. Which sparks more interest for the reader? You bet. Seeing someone take charge is infinitely more interesting. It’s also uplifting. And the readers want to see it.
Lucille can be miserable—later. Right now she has a problem to solve. Turns out the dirtbag spent two years burying his feelings after the breakup with the sister. He became a contractor in Afghanistan, where he found God. Now he’s coaching basketball at the local junior college so he can get to know his family all over again. And the kids… well, they want their dad.
If Lucille refuses, who’s the bad guy now?
Showing: So you show Lucille meeting with the reformed dirtbag and reluctantly agreeing to a supervised visit at the zoo with the children. Show Lucille admitting he can step up to the plate after one of the children insists on going through that nasty reptile house. Because she wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of it, not even for orphaned children. Or you show one of the kids stranded after Little League practice when Lucille is stuck in traffic during bad weather. She grits her teeth and calls “Dad” for help. Because the truth is, she doesn’t have a clue about parenting 24/7.
The reader is caught in the moment. She cares—she’s invested some “skin” in your story. Mark Twain says it like this: Don’t say the Old Lady screamed… bring her on and let her scream.
So how do you revise your writing to increase what you show?
1. Get Rid of Filters
The easiest way to kick the telling habit is to find filters in your writing. They’re dull phrases of unnecessary realization: He saw, she heard, Sandy realized, Joe notices, Henry thought, she felt, they listened, he looked, she observed, they anticipated, etc. Stopping to think in the middle of action is like stopping to scratch or blow our noses. Not something the reader needs to be a part of.
Telling: She thought of her child as a strong-willed person.
Showing: “Morgan! Get over here right now!” Standing in the middle of the aisle at Target, Linda counted to five—for patience.
Her child screwed up her beautiful, five-year-old face and shouted, “No!”
Would she ever outgrow being so stubborn? Linda grabbed Morgan’s hand and dragged her screaming daughter through the store and out to the car.
Telling: She believed Joe had cheated on her.
Showing: Joe’s shirt smelled of perfume she didn’t use.
2. Say Bye-Bye to Expletives
Expletives are it is/was, it has been, there is/was/were and there has been sentence starters, and they are so-o-o telling because (1) their vagueness makes your eyes bleed. No, wait. Their vagueness hurts your ability to show your story and (2) they put emotional distance between the character and the reader.
Telling: It was true he should marry Lady Cecily.
Showing: Lady Cecily offered the strongest alliance for holding his lands. A wise man would accept the king’s blessing and marry her. Was he, in fact, wise? Did he want to be?
Telling: It seemed Joe had cheated on her.
Showing: Joe’s shirt smelled of perfume she didn’t use.
3. Eliminate Dialog Tags
Dialog tags are the he saids, she saids that identify a speaker and are telling at its worst. If you’ve written dialog well, you need only an occasional reminder to the reader of who is speaking. Don’t try to sneak movement or major information into a dialog tag. Make the movement or information a separate sentence (action beat).
“Hi, Joan,” Helen said, her grocery car coming to rest by a row of fresh produce.
“Hi, yourself,” Joan said, turning to see her old friend.
“What do you plan to do this weekend?” Helen asked, forcing a smile.
“Tom and I are going out on the boat Saturday,” Joan responded in a strained voice.
“Oh, well, if you’re interested, Brad and I are having a cook-out Saturday night about seven,” Helen said with a shrug.
“We’ll see,” Joan laughed nervously. “Thanks.”
The dialog tags are telling and make the whole dialog lifeless. Be careful about –ly adverbs like nervously—they tell, too. The above conversation doesn’t even make clear whose POV we are in!
A grocery cart bumped into a display of red and yellow peppers. Joan turned to see an old friend her husband didn’t care for.
“Hi, yourself!” Joan retrieved a pepper rolling on the floor and returned it to the display.
“Have an plans for the weekend?”
“Tom and I are taking the boat out Saturday.”
“Oh, sure.” A shrug. “Well, Brad and I are having friends for a cook-out Saturday night about seven. If you’re interested.”
“We’ll see.” Joan started moving down the aisle. “Thanks.” She couldn’t look back.
This dialog is now dynamic. Dumping all the dialog tags, and the movement they contained, allows this conversation to be lively and full of meaning.
4. Eliminate Passive Voice (as much as possible)
Passive voice (a form of “to be” + past participle… was broken, had been eaten, was explained) is one of the most common ways of telling. Writing in passive voice tells the action, which weakens the conflict you’re illustrating.
Telling: Miranda was told her husband had been seen with a neighbor lady several times.
Showing: Took a minute for Miranda to absorb the truth. Her husband spent a lot of time with the cutie pie down the street. A lot. She put her coffee down and headed for the door. He was toast.
Telling: The crevasse was being skied over by men desperate to avoid the avalanche.
Showing: Desperate to avoid the avalanche, the men skied over the crevasse.
Telling: Brady was tormented by memories of the accident.
Showing: Memories of the accident tormented Brad.
In other words, come on Old Lady. Let’s hear you scream.
FYI… In a March 6, 2011, discussion of “show don’t tell” on the ACFW loop (American Christian Fiction Writers), Michelle Sutton stated that she started to “get it” when she read Stein on Writing. Stein advocates creating an envelope and letting your reader fill it. The Grammar Divas say you can’t “tell” the reader how to think if they’re busy helping the characters fill the envelope.
Sarah Sundin stated, in the same discussion, that she allows herself to “tell” quite a bit in the first draft—“then edit out great gobs of it.” Use a stimulus in the scene to trigger any information, and “then show the POV character’s emotional reaction to the information. When you have to ‘tell,’ stay in the POV character’s voice.” The Grammar Divas say you can’t intrude as author if you stick with that POV character. You can’t start explaining the backstory, the emotions, and all the minutia the reader doesn’t need.
Telling is narrative. Sometimes you need to set the opening of a scene or the passing of time. Sometimes you need to summarize events or description. Telling gives the reader dramatic punch at the end of a scene. Use telling when it serves the story.
Showing allows the reader to participate in the scene. She’ll draw her own conclusions as she experiences the character’s life. Use showing for important conflict, plot points, and character decisions. Remember that not everything has to be shown or you’ll have a manuscript that is too long and gives the reader no rest from action.
Blend a little telling in with the showing of your story. Your readers will have so much skin in the game they won’t put your book down, even if it’s 3 AM.
So, tell us what you think. What helps you remember to show important scenes?
Yours in grammar,
Darlene and Annie
The Grammar Divas are donating a grammar and style critique on the first 15 pages of a manuscript and 5-page synopsis to one lucky Seekerville visitor today. Leave a comment and your email address to be included in the drawing.
Knowing how much Seekers and Seeker friends enjoy good food, gourmet cook Darlene has prepared a Southern brunch, featuring Eggs Benedict, Spinach Quiche, Shrimp and grits (Debby's fav), Ham with sweet potato biscuits, Sausage balls,Maple-glazed bacon, Hash brown bake—similar to Cracker Barrel’s, Vidalia onion tart, Roast asparagus with balsamic glaze, Fried green tomatoes, Crème Brule French toast, Raspberry cheesecake, Sugared berries with cream, Melon slices and Bacon-wrapped grilled pineapple! YUM! Annie's providing her Breakfast Delight—Lucky Charms cereal. Grab a plate and enjoy!
The coffee's hot. Orange juice and mimosas for those who want a little Vitamin C.
About The Grammar Divas...
Going where most grammarians fear to tread, the Grammar Divas—a former English teacher (Darlene Buchholz) and a professional copywriter (Annie Oortman)—have made grammar for the commercial fiction writer simple, easy, and most of all, fun!
Together, the two fiction writers provide practical advice and expert guidance through a variety ways. They’ve taught conference workshops such as “Fat-Free Writing or How to Eliminate Wordiness in the Editing Stage” and “Designed to Sell… How to Enhance Your Writer’s Curb Appeal” at RWA National, NJ’s Put Your Heart In A Book, and GA’s Moonlight & Magnolias as well as at group meetings for River City Romance Writers, Music City Romance Writers, and Gulf Coast RWA. Upcoming live workshops include “Scene of the Crime: Who Killed This Sentence?” for Sacramento Valley Rose RWA and “Using Grammar to Develop and/or Strengthen Your Distinctive Writing Style” for River City Romance Writers.
The Grammar Divas recently returned from Salt Lake City, UT, where they taught their new all-day “Good Writing Comes From Good Editing” seminar for the Heart of the West RWA.
Visit their website—www.GrammarDivas.com—where the Grammar Divas tackle unique issues faced by fiction writers such as passive voice, comma usage, and inactive verbs. They also fight… err… discuss whether to end a sentence in a preposition. (Annie says “no;” Darlene, “yeah.”)
Writers looking for daily grammar tips and funnies can subscribe to their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Grammar-Divas/224477588891. They’re also on Twitter @Grammar_Diva.