Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Show, that bully manipulator

I've been in a show don't tell phase lately. The last story I wrote was almost all show, and I've been cutting out a lot of telling from my older work. I don't think there's anything wrong with telling things, especially if you're a good teller, but, like I said, I'm in a show phase lately.

Showing for me has been a way to get readers to pay more attention. If you are showing, the reader has to constantly be picking up clues about the characters. Readers are also more likely to get engrossed with the story that is shown. The details are more engaging on a sensory level. It makes the suspension of disbelief work better.

What I realize about showing a story, however, is that it forces your characters to act a certain way. Or, to be more precise, it forces your characters to ACT. If you are trying to show emotion without telling it, you are forced to make your character reveal the emotion through some action.

This is a problem for me.

See, for the few of you who have read a lot of my work, you may have seen that I'm often fascinated by characters who are frozen by their own fears. They're stuck because they either don't know what to do or they don't know how to do it. With these inactive characters, I had to tell a lot because the external view of them wasn't nearly as interesting as the internal view.

If, however, I start showing all the time, my characters aren't allowed to do nothing anymore. They have to act, otherwise it's 300 pages of a man (or woman) sitting in a chair (or couch). Forcing a character to act sure does make a story more interesting. (Hey, don't panic, but I think there's a plot standing...right...behind you.) On the other hand, I feel like I'm losing those characters that interested me. Or, maybe I'm just not providing as much insight into them as I would have liked. For example, though I wanted to provide insight into my cannibal character, I think a lot of that was lost through my decision to not tell. We'll see what the critics say on that.

Let's face it, a lot of people don't act. A lot of people are on the verge of acting, or wish they could act. I've been trying to capture those people, because I think there's a wealth of emotion bottled up inside of them. And, I wonder if I lose the depth of those characters when I show instead of tell.

So, the question I'm asking all of you is: Does showing (and not telling) force you to write about a certain type of character or a certain type of story?

My answer at the moment is yes, unfortunately.


  1. Yes. I'm finding it very hard to show my MC's inner turmoil when it would just be so much easier to tell.

  2. Whoa, that's an interesting observation.
    If the problem is a character who is static, perhaps the action comes from surrounding characters. Or an omniscient voice, which can comment on the character's inertia, would work. Just my very-early morning thoughts.

  3. I will try to think of a clearer way to say this, but I wanted to dash off my initial thought before I forgot.

    No. I thought for a long time it did. Then I realized that the alternative to changing my characters was to to change the way I wrote to enable the showing of inaction and paralysis, to demonstrate rather than explicate the internals.

  4. Interesting. I think of sharing a character's rambling interior thoughts about a decision as SHOWING indecision. Telling would be to use bald statements like "I just can't decide."

    I think the YA genre is chock full of characters who ruminate well, and keep you interested through strong voice rather than fast-moving plot. I've also read some rather gripping books about avoidance behaviors when a character is too scared to do the big thing.

  5. The decision to show or tell should be based on your expectations of the reader and the readers' expectations of the book. As long as those expectations line up, you're in good shape.

    Some people prefer to have an omniscient narrator explain what's going on, and some prefer to draw their own conclusions; this is one of the key elements that most agree would define a work as genre vs. literary.

    Not to say that's 100% accurate...every rule has exceptions, and I certainly don't intent to spark Ye Olde What's Literary Debate.

    Sometimes inaction can be showing in its own right, but this would likely require and action to be non-reactive toward.

  6. I take the "show don't tell" rule with a grain of salt. Often immature writers will find it easier to tell when it would be more dramatic and interesting to show, so beginners are often given this advice as a rule of thumb. But sometimes, an internal struggle works better in the telling. It depends on many things: voice, story, character, POV, and the quality of the writing factor in.

    Have you read A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee? There is both showing and telling in there, and both are necessary to deal with an MC who is paralyzed most of the time by fear and shame.

    It's tricky to choose which will work best in each scene or paragraph, and for me, I usually have to write it out both ways to feel out how it's working. You don't want to force your characters to "show" by having stupid conversations or making goofy gestures, but neither do you want to miss an opportunity to show if there is a striking and meaningful way to do it.

  7. For example, in A Gesture Life, all telling would have been extremely boring, while all showing would have been utterly confusing and would have isolated the reader completely from the mysterious MC. I think most novels need both, to varying degrees.

  8. @Genie - You make a great point about not wanting to force the showing. when you stage something like that, it's really the same thing as telling and it can be so artificial and unnecessarily expansive.

    This is pretty close to a real example from a writing class I was in:

    TELL: Jean and Fred hadn't seen each other since an argument about the color of the tablecloths at the PTA meeting.

    (corrected, with prompting to)


    "God, Fred, I haven't seen you in so long," Jean said with a sigh.

    "Can't believe we were so worked up about the color of the tablecloths at a PTA meeting, of all things." Fred laughed quietly.

    "I know!" Jean agreed. "No reason not to talk to a good friend."

  9. Your characters can launch into long profound soloquies. Dialogue is "showing" right?


    I think it depends on the area you want emphasized. You have to tell something in order to show something else. (you can't show your reader that the sky is gloomy or your character is tall --well you could but then you have to tell your reader that they bumped into the door frame or something in order to do it.) I try to tell the unimportant things which can include thoughts in order to point to the important things I don't want to be as straightforward with.

  10. Anne, an example that a writing teacher once gave me was Virginia Woolf. The teacher gave the class a passage of only showing, and it was about a couple sitting in the living room. The woman was knitting and the man was looking out the window. Nothing happened. Then, she gave us the real version, which had tons of telling in it. The emotion in that version was gorgeous.

    Tricia, Yes, I was thinking about this too. Having a static character surrounded by people and actions that SHOULD motivate her or him seems like it could work. I wonder, though, if that would be annoying for the reader.

    Nevets, I see you have more down below. I'll come back to you.

    Laurel, fair enough. I think that's just a semantic thing. I'd call what you're describing as good telling, but it does relate to voice and serves as a hybrid being showing and telling. To me, everything interior, anything that can't be captured by some recording device falls into the telling category. I know not everyone feels that way. That technique, though, can indeed be very engaging.

  11. lol In this case I pulled a fast one, and my two comments are from pretty much opposite vantage points.

  12. Rick, Yeah, I agree with your last point. To show inactivity requires some sort of balancing, doesn't it? Some sort of conservation of energy by other elements in the story. I know you are a fan of McCarthy. What I found interesting in The Road was that he showed a lot, but much of the emotion was carried in the telling sections.

    Jeannie, I agree with you. Like I said, it's just in a phase I'm in, and I wonder if that does force a story to go a certain way. From your description, it sounds like you at least partially agree with that. I think the majority of stories do require both, like you say.

    Nevets, I just saw that you were responding to Jeannie. For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that bad writing is not a consideration. I'm curious to see an example of what you're talking about.

    Taryn, I usually employ that same strategy too. It sort of focuses the emotion if you tell the casual parts of the story, doesn't it? I think that makes for very efficient writing. Something I'm realizing about always showing is that it takes many more words to make a point.

  13. Nevets, I guess that's just the way you roll.

  14. Honestly, Davin, I think the show don't tell rule is not for seasoned writers like yourself. It's not good to think of it in terms like that - in my opinion. Just write the story. We don't say, "Just show a story." We usually, "Just TELL a story." If you're telling a story and you're using well-written prose, it doesn't matter if it's showing or telling action as long as it works for the story.

    I'm just fed up with rules lately. I'm trying to ignore them and just write. If I think too much about this stuff I'm seriously hindered.

  15. I think that I would show their paralysis, and then a little bit of the thoughts running around in their minds.

    There are a lot of ways to handle this if you do it cleverly...


  16. My short answer to your question is "Yes." Yes, switching between showing and telling does change my characters and storyline, almost always.

    Sometimes showing a character's inaction without telling is senseless and boring or alienating, like in your Virginia Woolf demonstration.

    And sometimes showing a character's inaction without telling the reasons is powerful--as in Bartleby the Scrivener, or the black servant character in Foe. In those cases, the senselessness of the characters' silence or inaction is highlighted for a reason.

    I think it boils down to what you intend to do. Showing, or telling, in many cases can either help you achieve your purpose in writing a scene or presenting a character, or it can hinder it. I like what Michelle said. I'm feeling that way lately, too.

  17. I'm going to say that you have different ways of building a narrative, and that it's all down to the writing. It's possible to have--I think--a dramatic scene in which the protagonist does nothing, because there are a lot of ways to build tension and resolve them, and not all of those require physical action.

    This has to be vague because we're talking in generalities here, but I think that if you focused the "showing" on specific details of the scene (you are writing in scenes, if you're "showing," right?) and gave those details meaning, you'd be fine. You could actually show the reader the results of the character's inactivity ("his left bootlace had broken and so had a knot in the middle because he hadn't forced himself to walk up the street to the shop to buy a replacement" or whatever). Cause and effect. A lot of the middle of Cocke & Bull is Bull waiting for something to happen, not acting on his impulses, and it's all showing, or at least mostly showing.

    Anyway, listen to Ivana and just write, damn it.

  18. I've noticed that in literary fiction, telling is common, and it goes well with omniscient pov. When I imagine you going through you work and eviscerating the inner emotional turmoil of your characters, I makes me sad. It seems that you are second-guessing your writing a lot these days. This might strengthen you writing, but it also risks drying it out, turning it into something bland and lifeless.

  19. @Michelle - I think most of these rules are not really "rules" for confident, seasoned writers. I hope not, anyway. If so, I'm in big trouble.

    @Domey - Hmmm. The problem with an example is that a lot of the change to my writing has been structural and stylistic. I shall ponder and figure out a demonstrative sample of small enough size to be digestible.

  20. Michelle, this is just a preference of mine lately. It's a phase. I'm in the mood to show because it has been fun to do. I'll be curious to see what you think of the results with Bread!

    Misha...aahh, if only we could all be clever. I feel like half the time I'm writing I'm just trying to sound unstupid.

    Scott, I think that makes sense. You have to somehow emphasize the inactivity. I'm not "just writing" anymore, damn it! Im' produced far too much garbage with that approach.

    Tara Maya, I sincerely appreciate your concern. Thank you very much! I'll say--and hopefully this comforts you--that with my newest works I've revised very little. I'm letting them stand on their own. The older works that I'm revising are ones that I have just never felt worked.

    Nevets, I totally get what you're saying. Don't force it if no examples come to mind. If the change is more on the level of a big picture it wouldn't work here.

  21. You pose an interesting question.
    I don't know if this has effected my writing so much, but I've certainly noticed the difference in my reading. I once read a book where the MC wept a lot. That might be an action for sadness, but sometimes I really wish the author had just told me, using her brilliant language, that the character felt sad. After a few weepy moments, I wanted to smack him and tell him to ACT instead of just engage in an action. Telling might have helped that character.

  22. @Domey - Here are some the techniques I use...

    (Pardon, everyone, for linking. I'm not trying to promo myself, just to answer Domey's questions.)

    Go to and click on flash and then the title, "Master of the Game." This was prompt flash so it's not a perfect story. The open is very telly. After that, though, I use a lot of oblique internal commentary to suggest the story without saying, "I really liked her, and I wasn't sure how to handle that. She was able to get me to do things I wouldn't normally do, without my even realizing she was up to it."

    On the same page, there's another piece of prompt flash, "Discipline." When you think this story is about Rob, it has several telly moments. But there's a reason Rob isn't the narrator. The story's not about him, it's about the narrator. Rob is a foil to the main character's own attitudes. So I tell something, but the telling is there to show something about the teller, not so much for the telling's own sake.

    Sometimes it's more obvious and much less clever. Sometimes it's as simple as having a narrative that hints, even hints strongly. If you remember my NfromU submission ("I Need This" on the Exclusiweb page), the narrator is very telly but always falls short of the one, big thing at the core of the story. He comes absurdly close to it, but never outright says it, and I think the story would be weaker if he did.

    One last example of the bigger way this has changed my writing. Once I realized that I didn't always have to be linear and that I could play around a lot of timelines and presentation, and how stories within a novel are structured, I realized that I could use that. In Sublimation, there are two MC's. Each has two story-lines that happen at different times. By breaking these up and mixing them together, I'm able to use to use each char's two storylines to illustrate something important in the other. This is not as simple as substiting an event for a memory or foreshadow of an event, but actually turning the events into metaphors. Rather than have the character comment about his feelings on losing control, I can bring in the other storyline to show an example of it. In short-hand, I use passages of storylines as symbols to help show, not tell.

    I hope that was a helpful response, and not just a traffic jam. Mods may delete if it's too long and I'll blog it. :)

  23. Drat, I feel like I killed the conversation. Sorry!

  24. I always think that but I think it's just because I comment too late in the day.

  25. People, people, why must we be so nervous! :) Someone commented on something like that before. Don't be afraid to say anything and don't worry about killing the conversation. It's all good. :) I just tend to get into the working groove by the afternoon so I don't check the blog as much.

    Dominique, I think you're absolutely right!

    Nevets, I'm looking forward to comparing your two stories!

  26. Then I will do the same thing, and if it's self-deception, at least it's shared self-deception.

  27. Nevets, shared self-deception is the goal of TLL.

    We drink the Kool-Aid.

  28. It's good Kool-aid, at least.

    And we get nervous because we're writers and no matter how much swagger we put on, most of us are at our cores insecure, needy, self-pitying, and a little whiny.

    Or maybe that's just me... :)

  29. Nevets, that's just how we roll.

    Also: Tolstoy! (it's been awhile)

  30. Scott, I've been forgetting about Tolstoy lately. I don't know who to blame for that, so I'll blame Kindles.

  31. Nevets, I had a chance to look at your stories. Thanks a lot for the link and for explaining your techniques! I find it highly valuable. What you describe in Sublimation sounds a little bit like what I tried to do in Rooster.

  32. But I just got Anna on my Kindle, Davin. It's HELPING me remember Tolstoy!

  33. Well then who can I blame? Hmm...I blame the Pulitzer committee. If they would just choose my book as a winner then I can stop revising it, then I can have more time to read Tolstoy.

  34. You don't have time for Tolstoy.

    You make time for Tolstoy.

  35. @Domey - Glad it was helpful and not just more confusing.

  36. You make drinks for Tolstoy. You have him over for cocktails.

  37. I sleep with a lock of his hair under my tongue every night.

  38. I like to write characters who are struggling with "great unsaid" which is to say, the unspoken contracts we write with the people involved in our lives. This becomes especially complex with the relationship is dysfunctional.

    For me, I try very hard not to tell it. Characters may not act, but they try to act, especially when they're on the verge of change. So I show these attempts at change and their failures. Often they end up chasing their own tail, because that's what people do. In the middle of this are human tells. When someone is sad they do one thing. When they are happy they do another.

  39. Okay, I don't mind either approach. I'm pretty sure Dostoyevsky couldn't've written Crime & Punishment if he hadn't told a LOT about the protag's internal world. It's just a different style of storytelling, is all.

    HOWEVER, just because the character's living in a mainly internal world, doesn't mean they can't still act. they can have a repeated nervous habit, like picking their cuticles or brushing the hair from their eyes. They can make a sandwich, get a glass of water, rearrange the pillows on the couch, spend 20 minutes trying to remove every last bit of adhesive from a piece of furniture someone stuck a sticker to. All of these things are actions that could be made to reflect the internal state of the character, and interspersed with the telling, if necessary.

    I think you already know this, of course. But you *did* ask. :)

  40. I am a firm believer in show don't tell because it has made a dramatic difference in my writing.
    But it does sound like showing not telling might make it more challenging to write about the specific kind of introverted or frozen character you describe. My editor told me recently that most people (in my genre at least) derive the greatest pleasure from character development and interaction because it makes the reader FEEL and thus become attached to the character. Perhaps the key to these introverted or frozen characters is more about how you get the reader attached to them... like a save the cat moment or a mystery they wear constantly but you don't reveal just yet.

    I also don't think telling is always bad. But I still work to be aware of which choice serves the character development and emotional connection to that character.
    ~S :)

  41. In describing characters or a scene, I personally like to show appearances by indicating what others see.

    Probably a lot depends upon the writer and his approach to the subject. Some writers might go into great detail but in such an interesting way that the reader is fascinated, while others barely give any indication at all of what a character or a room looks like.
    Since I'm into mysteries and detective stuff, I feel a lot depends upon who's doing the observing.

    Philip Marlowe being a trained detective, is extremely observant. In "The Big Sleep" he barely gets a glimpse of Joe Brody through a crack in the door and yet manages to give a description that anyone could use to pick the man out of a lineup. But remember, (a) Marlowe's a trained detective and (b) that's Mr. Chandler's way of writing. It's scarcely breathless, but you read and re-read his stuff because of the way he goes about saying what he has to say.

    If an average citizen however, got that same glance at Joe Brody through a crack in the door, he probably couldn't say more than that some guy peered out at him. He couldn't even tell you what color hair or eyes the Brody had.

    I think I used to tell more than show, but for years I've had that "show, don't tell" driven at me so often and so many times that I tend to do that now.

    As I go along, it gets easier and more natural all the time. Instead of saying, The girl had flouncy red hair and a tattoo on her neck, I might say, He stared at the girl's flouncy red hair. She even had a tattoo on her neck! So much for this date, he thought.

    Obviously showing reveals the observer's POV, which tells the reader something about him/her into the bargain. In the little example above, it's clear that the observer would be more attracted to a more conservative woman. If you ask me, he's probably even a bit of a prude. I think he should give the girl a chance, at least an evening to get to know her better.

    You tell me. I'm not a best-selling author; just a writer who still has to consider his writing a hobby at this point in time. I know it's a hobby because my wife told me so.

    My website is but I'm not pushing anything. I do post my books, but mostly it's pics and info about real and fictional detectives and bad guys.

  42. One more thing, now that I'm on a roll:

    A writer can learn a great deal from the movies. The movies by definition "show". I hate the few that have a constant Voice Over commentary going.

    Action movies do a lot of showing of course, but even the most sluggish storylines have to show. The actors have to express their thoughts through their actions, their facial expressions and of course, their dialogue.

    In describing a situation it may help some writers to imagine the character on the screen. How would he/she display an unspoken emotion? What would this character do? Throw something? Sigh? Stomp his/her feet? Scream? Go look into the mirror and say: "Face it, you're a total loser."

    I never tried this but it just might work. If it doesn't work for you, don't bother to sue me because I'm broke.


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