Show Don't Tell: Spotting TELLING in your WIP

One of the best books I found that explained telling words aside from Jack Bickham's SCENE & STRUCTURE was a book on writing synopses... Elizabeth Sinclair's THE DREADED SYNOPSIS. I had a list of things not to avoid like the plague from Sinclair's book. Since using said list once or twice, I engrained those rules into my subconscious and just rarely write the words or phrases anymore. Good thing. The computer that list was on crashed. Oy! So, I thought I'd cough up some of the goods today.

What are words to writers? Tools. Power symbols of communication. And why do we want to be careful what we choose to write? (Mind you, this coming from an author whose critique partners have often told her that the words she uses are too strong... I call that VOICE and just carry on tossing them into my stories.) Words are crazy little symbols that help a speaker or writer control the thoughts of another person. Yep. I said that. One of the crazy things I studied in grad school was Post-modernism. It just fell into one of the anthropology classes I signed up for, and, behold, I was suddenly looking at speech and how some people just never wanted to give up control of a conversation using "I," "me," "my," and "mine." Ever notice someone ignoring your interjected comment about something else? LOL Yes. It happens. I have a step-mother who never listens to what anyone is saying. You'll be talking mid-sentence and she'll start talking about something else. No, not just ask a question related to what you're saying. She will ask if you've ever tasted her tamales or something equally irrelevant. So, when I mention how writers use words to control a person's thoughts, I also mean that writers use words to engage a reader's thoughts and keep them engaged. TELLING words do not engage a reader.

What are TELLING words? TELLING words are boring. TELLING words make my thoughts drift to the grocery list when I should be revising my work-in-progress. Oh, yes! I find them in my rough draft. I can tell I was tired of writing that scene and just slapped a few paragraphs together to move onward. It's so sad. For me, that is, because I have to fix the bloody mess. But when my mind begins to wonder if I put toothpaste on the grocery list, I know there's a problem. That's when I go back to the last place I remember what happened in the story (3 paragraphs or two pages) and search for the problem.

He said. She walked across the room. He grabbed her arm. She kneed him in the groin. He groaned and fell over.

You get my drift. I call this golf narration. It's really boring like when my husband watches golf for hours and I can sit right in front of the television and never hear a word of it! But how do you spot this if you haven't trained your brain to lock up and refuse to let it in?

Look for these words:
like (simile)
as (simile)

Aw, heck. There is no way to list purple prose. They tend to be words that just don't feel right when you read them--words used to modify other words or extravagant metaphors. Visit the link to see what I mean. As for similes, the rule of thumb I read somewhere was limit yourself to one per page. Just so you don't get trapped in a purple-prose quagmire. *wink*

Just Use Plain Language (not too plain)
I know a best-selling erotica author who writes with the most ridiculous words--like her POV characters all have PhDs. I'm not buying they do. Rather, I'm so entertained that she can't SHOW at all beyond dialogue that I read the excerpts she posts, looking for the sign of her growth as a writer. Nothing. I guess once you make good money writing you don't have to learn any skills to improve your product. What do I know? Sex sells! Right? So, back on track...What does purple prose look like? 

  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Passe words not being used in a story written during the time period of their day
  • Words people have to look up in a dictionary to understand the line they're reading
  • Metaphors

The very first example of ridiculous purple-prose word usage I remember from Creative Writing class. We were reading something written by a famous author--one of the classics from last century. There was a line of dialogue with a dialogue tag: 

                                       ," he said wetly. 

Is that hysterical? Honestly, I can't even begin to create a purple-prose list. The words just don't work when they are used as purple prose. But look for purple prose and TELLING in your favorite author's book. Run, pull one off the shelf. Flip through it, and read some random pages.

You won't find made-up words like "wetly" that just don't work. Nor will you find all characters' dialogue sounding like they're all over-educated Catholic priests using words that make us shoot confused glances between each other. Geesh, no! Characters won't be speaking above their level of education or outside their subculture. You won't find POV characters thinking beyond those things either. A person who doesn't finish high school won't be thinking or talking about an itinerary or protocol. If your POV character has a PhD in education, your character will think like he/she has a PhD in education. If your POV character has a Masters in Physics, your character will think like a scientist who does.

Neither of those examples of a character with a formal education will think like a twenty-year-old woman who had her first baby at eighteen, lives at home with her parents, and goes to the local junior college to finish a two-year degree in nursing. Mind you, she might think differently if her mother had the PhD in education and her father has the Masters in Physics. But you have to build those characters into the picture before the young woman can talk about Quantum Physics and developmental delays of first graders. The game of building characters (characterization) is like weaving a story cloth. Every fiber affects the integrity of the cloth. I call that world building.  That said about characterization, you still have to think of the right words to use.

So, you stopped using all those fluffy adjectives and adverbs that didn't work with your character's worldview. Then you started using normal verbs to describe action. Nothing passe. Right? Okay, I use descry and conjure. But they're fun! Why not? Okay. Okay. I'm moving on. So, you're still receiving feedback that you're still TELLING? Okay, just a moment...

Tom knew he wanted to hold Lily's hand. He thought he'd try to sneak a hand over and take hers.
Lily stepped right.
Tom sighed because her hand was even farther away now. He needed to attract her back his direction. "Where are you going, Lily?"
She peered at him. "I'm cold over there."
Tom doubted she'd be cold if she'd move closer and hold his hand.

Sorry. I snored too! That example is so See-Spot-See-Spot-run. But I find it incredibly difficult to write something that boring! I do try whenever I want to pass on examples. But my brain refuses to conjure up more than that. Actually, it's easier to find excerpts online and use them as examples. I just don't want to offend the excerpts' creators by posting an excerpt make-over here. And who's to say they'd give a hoot about my writing style? So, better to suffer and make my own boring example. But back to my point...

#1. POV characters don't call themselves by their name and...
If we're in 3rd or 1st person, say Tom's POV, he won't refer to himself by his name. Sorry, creative writing teachers. But don't insult my intelligence. This leads into my soapbox speech: use actual thoughts. My God, look at the example below:

Tom knew he wanted to hold Lily's hand. He thought he'd try to sneak a hand over and take hers.
Lily stepped right.
Tom sighed because her hand was even farther away now. He needed to attract her back his direction. "Where are you going, Lily?"
She peered at him. "I'm cold over there."
Tom doubted
she'd be cold if she'd move closer and hold his hand.

The words I used "strike-through" to omit aren't actually what I want to cut from the example. I want to substitute something in place of those lovely boring TELLING bits. Here we go.

To hold Lily's hand. Hell, what's wrong with me? Just edge a hand over and take hers. Grow some balls. Or use what's hanging. (1st Person present tense immediate thoughts are italicized in 1st/3rd Person)
Lily stepped right.
Tom sighed.
Her hand was even farther away now. How to attract her back my direction? "What do you feel like doing?"
She peered at him. "Going outside to sit in the sun. I'm cold over there."
She wouldn't be cold if she'd hold my hand.

Honestly, every now and then, I'll stumble upon an author who can combine all those TELLING things I want to cut with enough internalization in sentences to just wow me. And I buy the author's entire backlist. Try Kaitlyn O'Connor's THE PORTAL.

OMG, THE PORTAL is some amazing writing. And the plot... It's labeled erotica but isn't except for the fact it's a futuristic and the world is so different. The heroine winds up with three mates by the end of the book. And it all makes sense. You want her to be with all three. You want them all together. To me, that's an amazing feat to accomplish as a writer when we're monogamous. But I'm an evil anthropologist who appreciates other ways of doing things. So, I send you to O'Connor's example if you're curious about blending TELLING with internalization. Add to that, the story is written in 3rd Person. I write multiple 1st Person POVs now. You can read some examples if you scroll down my blog and find the 1st Chapter or Excerpts post from a few days ago. If you want to avoid the sex scenes, skip anything labeled ADULT and don't read the whole 1st Chapter. My writing is pure internalization beyond external stimuli. Why? External stimuli are outside the POV character's body and can't be lumped into the "thought" category. It's simply everything that affects a POV character.  

#2. Thoughts are actions
First of , the italics work. I'm a heavy user of internalization in my stories to make everything as real as possible because thoughts are actions. Yes. ACTIONS. Action SHOWS. So, refer back to that best-seller's work you took off the shelf. Can you find thoughts in there? I'll just say Gena Showalter uses internalization to show in her Lords of the Underworld series. There. I experienced self-validation. LOL You don't have to use internalization. But if you do, you'll get reviews like I do stating the reader felt like she was living the story as one of the characters. Mind you, not everyone likes my style of writing. So, do whatever works for you.

Okay, I'm stopping there today. It's an easy place where I can pick up the ball and run again another time. So, happy writing! And don't TELL! ~Skhye



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  • 10/24/2011 10:18 AM Jessica McHugh wrote:
    Very interesting! I get very nervous about showing/telling and using purple prose. I'm a huge fan of alliteration and metaphor and feel I have a poetic writing style, so I feel like I could easily fall into that trap. However, 95% of my reviews are positive and the readers claim to be engrossed by the writing. Only one has accused me of purple prose and he was someone who doesn't usually read speculative fiction (my chosen genre). So I guess it's just a fine line, or maybe for spec-fic fans, it isn't as big a deal? I don't know, but I'm going to keep writing as I've always written while trying to improve with every piece.
    Thanks for the informative post!
    --Jessica McHugh

    ***Hi, Jessica! I also write speculative fiction and have been told I have a poetic voice. Heard that first waaaay back from an agent. And I wrote all sorts of things badly back then! * cringes about agent reading the work *

    Bob Mayer said something that really made me stop and think--when I attended a writing conference in San Diego in 2003. He kept talking about how an author's writing evolves and how it should evolve as the writer grows and learns. Then he'd tell us about how he would sit down and study various authors's entire backlists. Can you imagine? Makes me nervous...So, I just kept on learning and feel obligated to do so. Heck, I just read my last book released by my publisher in 2009. (Re-releasing it on my own.) I was so embarrassed at the writing. I completely overhauled it. The book was actually one of the earliest ones I'd written that wound up at the end of a published series. I shouldn't have been surprised at the quality of writing. But my critique partners were after me to teach writing back in 2009! OMG * cringes again *

    So, I post what I post for those interested in the subject. In no way shape or form should you feel obligated to change anything you do. Especially when your writing style sounds far superior to mine--based on your reviews. I really hate it when people put long apologies at the end of their discussion of some writing topic. But I guess I'll have to start doing that. *
    wanders off to ponder the idea
    * ~Skhye
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  • 10/24/2011 9:43 PM JD Faver wrote:
    Great article, Skhye!
    Let me offer my personal favorite: felt.
    If an author writes, He stops me cold. I'm thinking, why are you TELLING me how he feels. Let the character show me.
    Thanks for letting me rant.

    ***Ranting is always something that happens when the discussion of TELLING rears its hideous face! What about--look, want, need, thought? These are words you use in synopses or the immediate thoughts of your POV character. Now, I don't write omniscient POV, so can't vouch for it. But I'd rather experience something immediate than through monotone golf narration. ~Skhye
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  • 11/11/2011 12:10 AM Amy Denim wrote:
    Thanks for this post. I'm working with my critique group now on my first MS and have all sorts of issues with show don't tell. I'm definitely getting better as I go, but your post was helpful in this endeavor.

    ***Glad to have helped. I haven't finished with the SHOW DON'T TELL posts. I hope to expand more on the subject this weekend. I've never found anything that actually teaches how to avoid the pitfalls of TELLING. So, it can't hurt to broaden the internet's horizons! ~Skhye  
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