Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I have to admit, I’ve always been a little confused by the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ – I mean, we’re authors, we work in a written (not visual) medium; the whole point of storytelling, is to to tell (see? it’s right there in the name).

But, then again, I do like Chekhov’s call to arms:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

Okay, so say I do as you ask, Anton, and instead of writing:

It was a full moon.

I write:

A silver light glinted off broken glass.

It’s still telling, isn’t it? I’m still verbalising a visualisation, still passing on information as a seeing woman would to a blind man.

So what, reallyis the difference?

moonlight

One definitely has a more engaging voice – a poetic sensibility and sense of storytelling rather than mere telling. 

But, how far can we (should we) take it. What if, instead of writing:

She smiled.

I write:

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards.

Seems a little overdone, no? Like I’m now turning my back on my other literary hero, Hemingway, and using seven words when two would suffice.

Which bring us back to the original question: What really is the difference? What does ‘showing’ really mean?

My answer, after much consideration and consternation (and rewrites after rewrites of telling drafts and over-written drafts), is this:

It is not the poetry of description that identifies ‘showing’, it is the dominance of the active verb.

Telling uses passive verbs. Showing uses active verbs.

Passive verbs are those that are static and/or exist solely inside one’s head. The ‘to be’ verbs. The ‘thought’ (liked, remembered, desired, wished, despised, etc) verbs. (Chuck Palahniuk has a great post on eliminating thought verbs here).

Active verbs are dynamic, the ones you can actually observe and engage with.

Let’s look at the examples again and throw some more in for fun:

  • It was a full moon VS a silver light glinted off broken glass
  • She smiled VS the corners of her mouth twitched upwards
  • The box felt heavy VS the box settled in her arms like lead
  • She detested the zombie VS she aimed the rifle at the space between the zombie’s dead eyes
  • She ran to her mentor VS her feet thundered along the road to her mentor
  • Jasper was tired VS Jasper rubbed the sleep from his eyes with a weary hand.

 

If you’re up for it- why not join me in responding to Chuck’s challenge and start the process of eliminating passive verbs from your writing? Let me know how you’re going with it in the comments!

 

Image courtesy of Abbyladybug via Flickr Creative Commons

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Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

Writing for your readers…and yourself

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

During the initial drafting of Divided Elements, I realised that I needed more eyes on it than just mine. As an untested author, I was unsure whether I was on the right track, whether the story idea was genuinely interesting, whether I had the chops to pull it off. To that end, I joined two online critique groups and found a local critique partner with whom I could exchange ideas and chapters. Feedback is critical for any writer, but sometimes reviews and critiques can seem like a version of ‘how I would write this book’, rather than ‘this is a problem for your story’. In this post, I talk about how to manage reader expectations to avoid the former criticism…

Getting feeback

Honest feedback and constructive criticism from other writers and readers can be incredibly useful in identifying technical areas for improvement, such as:

  • plot holes
  • crutch words
  • writing flaws (spelling, grammar, punctuation,etc)

Feedback, especially when critique partners are also assessing your WIP as readers, can also become more subjective. Personalities, reading preferences (genre, style, audience, etc), and whether they are in a good or bad mood when it comes time to reading that particular chapter, can all impact on how these readers assess:

  • Your characters – are they likable, sympathetic, competent, intriguing?
  • Your world – is it believable, over the top, too dominant, too generic?
  • Your plot lines – is the midpoint what they expected/wanted, does the ending satisfy their need for a perfect resolution of plot?

This is where the subjectivity of reviews and critiques becomes tricky. Yes, you need to write for your readers. But you also need to write for yourself.

This is your project, your creativity on a page, your piece of soul and worldview in ink.

Your responsibility as an author

That being said, you also have a responsibility as a writer to not mislead your readers. Readers may not like your characters or enjoy your world, but that is something that will become apparent early on in the story. It’s okay for this to happen, because at the beginning of the story, the reader’s investment in the book is still low. They may have only spent half an hour reading your novel before realising it is not for them.

No harm, no foul.

But what happens when a reader gets halfway through the book, or worse – to the climax, and their expectations or desires for the story are thwarted? They’ve been rooting for the protagonist to enter into an epic sword fight with her arch nemesis, but at the final moments she is disfigured and loses all of her strength and sword-wielding abilities, ruling out this plot line…

Or they’ve been reading eagerly through the chapters, enthralled by the developing attraction between the two main characters and awaiting that moment in the climax when they just know the two are going to finally put aside their resistance and actually admit they love the other, but just before the peak of this build up, one of the characters dies…

These are the sort of things that can send Goodreads review into vitriol territory – Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.

Ned Stark - Brace Yourselves

Now, while it is not the author’s job to pander to reader desires – it is the author’s job to manage reader expectations. That is the whole purpose of a story – to take a reader on a journey with the author (and the characters) – and to set parameters within which plot twists and key events will be surprising, but in a way that enhances the reader’s appreciation of the story.

Managing reader expectations

The key to this is managing reader expectations from the start.

This is why the start of a book is so critical – it not only establishes the characters and the world – it should also establish the style, tone and theme. In a way, the start of your book is its constitution – the set of rules and laws by which your book will abide from beginning to end.

George R.R. Martin did this expertly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – *** WARNING – Spoilers for those who have been hiding under a rock, living in another universe, living a life without television or internet and do not know about GAME OF THRONES ***

– when he killed off Ned Stark early on in the piece he illustrated his story’s constitution – indicating that killing off beloved characters was not something he would shy away from. Because it happened early in the piece, readers and fans were able to forgive him this (they were still orienting themselves to the story), and future instances of untimely deaths (they were, by then, used to his sadism).

So, dear authors, by all means introduce plot twists and intense character arcs and story surprises in your novel – just ensure that you have adequately prepared readers for the possibility of these things by successfully establishing your story’s constitution in the opening chapters where you introduce style, tone and theme.

 

Have you ever been disappointed or infuriated by a story plot point later in the piece? Has an ending ever made you regret picking up the book in the first place? Tell me about it in the comments section! 

 

Writing for your readers…and yourself