Sunday, May 15, 2011

Show vs Tell

Showing vs. telling is probably the toughest issue new authors face. In fact, the first time a publisher rejected one of my novels because it “had too much telling and not enough showing”, I didn’t know what they meant. I now have seven novels and one short story accepted for publication, and am still learning about show vs. tell. It isn’t a matter of learning some rules. Instead, it’s a matter of learning a new way of thinking.

In simplest terms, “Show vs. Tell” means an author cannot conclude for the reader what’s going on. An obvious example might be, “He felt sick.” Okay, I’ve just told you how he felt, but how would one show it? Even in this example, a basic rule is to try to bring in as many of the senses as possible. Sight: What’s his color like? Pink, red, green, ashen, white? Smell: Are there any odors, like bad breath, a tint of formaldehyde drifting on the air, or perspiration? Hearing: Would the reader need to know about a cough, a wheeze, or escaping unpleasant gas? Feel: Does the person have ague, clammy cold skin, or goose bumps? Taste: Would a skilled investigator detect a particular poison in the patient’s food?

I often see “show vs. tell” as a continuum, with Faulkner on one end and me on the other. My plots are complex. My stories are long. I just want to tell the story, and showing is much harder than telling. Nevertheless, smarter people than me say it’s not enough to tell a story. It must be shown, and learning how is a journey. I’ve listed a few recent lessons below that others might find helpful in their journey.

Body Language. It’s been said that only 50% of communication between people is verbal. The remainder is body language. Many authors struggle with showing what their characters are doing during dialog exchanges. I’ve tried to use body language for that. Here are a few examples.

A quick smile: a friendly person.

Intermittent smile when appropriate: a person telling the truth.

A constant or prolonged smile: someone’s hiding something.

Frequent eye contact: a person telling the truth, an individual interested what another has to say, someone being polite…or one who doesn’t trust the speaker.

Scratching the chin or playing with an ear: clues that the receiving person no longer believes what’s being said or that other things are competing for attention.

Sharp head tilt: boredom at what’s being said (that can be emphasized negatively with folded arms).

Slight head tilt: a sign of interest (e.g., the RCA dog).

Crossed arms: a defensive position, a symbolic barrier between the speaker and the listener.

Blank expression: a sign of hostility, or a that the speaker has lost the listener (listener might be thinking of what to say next).

Woman flinging her hair: Flirty move to catch a man’s attention.

Exposing the neck: shows interest, and not just in the vampire sense.

Female leg-crossing: can show disinterest (if toes point away from the man) or interest (if toes point toward the man).

Subtle touching: shows interest. So does touching something nearby that belongs to the other person in the conversation. A participant can also touch an ear or parts of his/her face. A bold body language signal is to bring attention to the lips.

Fidgeting: a sign of interest and nervousness that can be used to catch another’s attention.

A useful guide: http://changingminds.org/techniques/body/body_language.htm

Beware of Adjectives. I just completed the first edit round for my novel, Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! I was fortunate to have an excellent editor. She pointed out a couple of issues I should have been aware of, but wasn’t. One was the use of adjectives to “tell” parts of the story instead of “showing” it. Here are two examples:

“With my most insincere expression….” could be, “I force a smile, like a beauty queen being asked how she feels about gay marriage….”

“To say it’s delicious is an understatement.” could be, “Without question, it’s better than sex.”

Beware of Adverbs. The lesson about adjectives also applies to adverbs. In this case, the editor required removal of almost every adverb in the manuscript. She was tough, but she was right!

“I respond innocently….” could be, “I bat my eyes several times, straighten my shoulders and bring my knees together like a proper lady before responding.”

“I feign concern, and suggestively back against the adjacent bed.” could be, “I back against the adjacent bed, cross my arms and flex my shoulders to reveal just enough sumptuous breast beneath my scooped-necked robe to dazzle him.”

“I’m absolutely certain he’ll crush my hand if I take his.” could be, “I’m certain, if I take his, he’ll crush my hand like a Tyrannosaurus eating a goat.”

“She’s clearly angry.” could be, “Her face looks like a large dried prune that’s been sucking lemons.”

“The food is beautifully presented…” could be “The food makes my mouth water. The presentation is also superb, with food arranged by color around an ice sculpture of the Pietà gracing table center.”

“They looked pissed. Clearly they’re upset I got promoted.” could be, “The ones closest to me are frothing at the mouth, unless they’re backing up and farting bubbles. It’s hard to tell with light creatures. From their growl alone, I assume they’re pissed. I suspect they’re still upset because I got promoted.”

Add Colorful Descriptions.

“He begins pulling me down the corridor.” could be, “Hebegins pulling me down the corridor with the stride of a model walking the runway, while I try to keep a respectable separation to avoid colliding with the rhythmic swish of his hips.”

“An odd-looking ugly yellow cat.” could be “A scruffy yellow cat with matted clumps of hair.”

“With a caricature-like stance, he responds,” could be, “The little rat looks a lot like a cartoon with his nose twitching, head cocked and his hands on his hips. His voice drips with sarcasm as he responds,”

“The living room is piled high with all manner of crap and garbage.” Could be, “The living room is piled high with stacks of papers and magazines, baskets of clothes, toys, furniture, televisions, broken washing machines, an old microwave, tools and raw garbage.”

“There is an adjoining bathroom with access to a nasty-looking toilet and shower that hasn’t been cleaned for a decade.” could be, “An adjoining bathroom encloses a moldy, un-flushed toilet that has shit smeared on the tank, and a shower crusty with hard-water deposits and dried blood. A thick deposit of mud and blood cover the floor. Filth is pervasive, like nothing has been cleaned for a decade. The stench of rotting flesh coats every surface, as if the putrid odor itself is his trophy.”

Although some of the examples above are graphic, they all share one common thread. In each case, a description replaces an adverb, adjective or less colorful way of saying the same thing. In all cases, the replacements are intended to “show” vs. “tell” what’s going on.

I have come a long ways on my journey to become an author, but I have far to go. At some point, I want to be more than a so-so author. Writing is my hobby; I want to do it as well as it can be done. All examples above were extracted from the first round of edits from my latest paranormal comedy novel, Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! The novel is the sequel to The Substitute, and will soon be available from Solstice Publishing. The Substitute is available from both Solstice Publishing and Amazon. A short Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana! blurb follows.

Having performed a single selfless act, Miss Havana finds herself on probation in heaven. After many missteps, she discovers she still retains the powers she had as The Queen of Darkness, and realizes she’s on probation as much to keep her from joining forces with her daughter, The Princess of Darkness, as anything else. The Brazilian, a large black man with a dreadlocks beard who waxes regularly, is her “guide”, but she ignores his advice until he’s taken off her case. Guideless and in a foreign environment, she consorts with evil spirits from her former realm, especially Waldo, a shadow creature so named because he’s so hard to find. She acquires a copy of “The Angels Guide to Earth”, comes to believe she is the Angel of Death, and returns to the surface as an advice columnist and assassin. She wreaks havoc before God intervenes for a final showdown...which, as it turns out, isn’t as final as most would hope.

Miss Havana also offers advice at Reaper’s Door, http://mlmrdenter.blogspot.com/, but no one should take her advice seriously.

Thanks for reading,

James L. Hatch


Sarah J. McNeal said...

Show vs tell is a very interesting and informative subject for writers. I struggle with it still. I want to say straight out that a character is sad but I have to remind myself that her facial expressions and body posture are better avenues of expression. Writing seems to always be a work in progress.
Good blog subject, James. I wish you every success with Oh, Heavens, Miss Havana.

Anonymous said...

I really liked your post on Show vs tell. You give us some really good examples.
G W Pickle

Tina Donahue said...

Great post, James - very helpful for new writers.

Delaney Diamond said...

Show vs. tell was a lesson I also had to learn, as well as cutting back on the adverbs. My writing has improved because of it. You had some good examples, by the way.

Fiona McGier said...

The body language stuff is really interesting, and a reminder that much of our communication is done inadvertently, which the author must be aware of, in order to make the characters "live". Great examples for that and the omitting of adverbs. Good luck with the next book.