D. F. Krieger

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Editor Lessons: Showing versus Telling

A few days ago, I posted on my Facebook page that I was creating lessons for the editors at Breathless Press. When I mentioned one of the subjects was showing versus telling, many people privately messaged me asking if I could send them the file on this particular subject to help them out. Instead of sending out a ton of emails, I thought I'd simply paste the lesson on my blog. This way anyone who wants it, even if they don't really know me, has access to such a troublesome subject. Here you go:
Showing Versus Telling
Nothing trips an author up more than showing versus telling. Sometimes, instances of this writing no-no is even hard for seasoned editors to spot. Telling has become one of the most talked about, but least understood subjects in the world of fiction writing. Let me give you examples of how to spot telling and how to make it showing.

Words ending in "ly" such as softly, gently, gladly, joyfully, angrily, unhappily, etc.
He touched her arm softly.
Yes, it does convey what he's doing to her. What it doesn't convey is the sensation. It's nothing more than text on the paper. When you force yourself to look at the culprit, you can pin the blame on softly with ease. Let's try to rework the sentence without using an "ly" word.
His fingertips feathered across her skin.
Okay, now we're receiving sensation and a little more about the touch. We can deduce from the description of feathered that there is a hesitant intimacy here. We know he used his fingertips, and we also know he touched bare skin instead of tugging on a shirt sleeve or the like. I want you to take a moment to realize that we accomplished so much more in 6 words than we did previously with 5, all because we booted the telling word which forced us to rewrite the sentence.
Note that not all "ly" words are bad. When important description hinges on them, however, it's always good to take a look at the sentence as a whole and decided whether the description is adequate or excellent. We want to always strive for excellent.

Passive voice.
She was mad.
This is a prime example of telling that I see constantly. I read her rage, but as the audience, I want to experience her outrage, feel it as my own. I want to ride the experience, not spectate. The naughty word here is was. The past tense in this keeps the emotion from being active, so it lies there like a dormant volcano. We can see it. We know what it's capable of. We feel no awe of what it is doing right this moment. So let's make that mad active.
Anger burned through her until red tinged her vision.
Whoa, we definitely know she's not only mad, she's on the verge of doing something rash. It paints a far more colorful picture. If that's not the level of anger the author meant, there's always something like:
She dug her nails into her palm in an effort to bite back the angry words she wanted to snarl at him.
The above example also fleshes out "she was mad," but now we know she's in control of her emotions. We also know her anger is likely a reaction from emotional pain.

Feel, felt, feeling.
I could feel myself becoming sick.
The above sentence is so full of telling that I can sense the readers skimming now. In this case, we can pin the evil on feel. I once read something that said, "Authors, don't tell me how to feel. Make me experience it." In this case:
Nausea and vertigo warred brutally within me as I stumbled across the room.
Look at the tension we have now. Are we going to throw up? Are we going to fall down? Are items going to be broken as we stumble through our surroundings? Note the use of an "ly" word in this case. Brutally describes warred here, but the focus is on the nausea and vertigo so we don't need to worry about expanding.
She felt tired.
The sentence is passive and telling all rolled into one. The key to this, as with all passive voice, is to make it active. An easy fix would be:
Exhaustion pulled at her as her body begged her for sleep.
Exhaustion has so much more oomph to it than tired. We all know what exhaustion feels like, so now we sympathize with the character as well as empathize.
He was feeling scared right now.
I think sentences structured like this are the ones that nearly make my mind explode. They are a strange combination of active/passive that boggles my mind. Was indicated past tense, where the phrase right now is present. Again, the answer to anything that even slightly stinks of passive voice is to make it active. So:
Terror filled him at the sight of the broken body and the blood-spattered walls.
Mwahaha, much more graphic, don't you think? The above sentence will have the readers leaning forward, clutching their book as their mind already starts trying to piece together who did it, why, and will the character survive?
I hope this in-depth look helped some of you in your struggles to understand such a pain in the butt subject. See you next time! ~ D. F. Krieger


Ember Leigh said...

GREAT article, and thank you for sharing this!

J.M. Powers said...

Whoa! Though I strive to show and not tell, I still catch myself doing it. Thanks for posting this! It's clear and concise.

Faberge Nostromo said...

Bookmarking this page quickly...
Er, I mean... the need to recall drove his fingers on the keyboard.

shellirosewarne said...

Really helpful article - thanks for sharing x

Kimberly Gould said...

Three simple searchable things. Made it that much easier.