Friday, February 15, 2008

Question on Showing Verses Telling

Along with understanding how to use point of view (POV) effectively, showing rather than telling is another difficult craft technique to learn. Both appropriate use of POV and showing scenes enhance the emotion of the story, create word pictures in which the reader can immerse himself, and brings life to a book. Showing makes a story three-dimensional rather than flat. Think of the difference between a Harry Potter story and a fairytale. In the Potter books, the reader is drawn into the excitement and experiences the story's action. A fairytale tells about a sleeping beauty or an orphan named Ella who cleans up cinders, but readers do not feel the excitement or pain of the sadness, fear, anxiety or joy of these characters.

Author Debra Ullrick asked this questions:
Could you please tell me if the list below are telling? And if they are, are they okay to use sometimes?

He amended.
A wicked grin curled his lips.
She sent him a saucy smile.
He lamented.
He warned.
His curious grin
.

Notice she asked can an author use these phrases sometimes. The answer is yes. While those statements are telling rather than showing, occasionally they work when the statement isn't as significant as what's coming next, but that occasion would be rare, because it leaves the reader flat---especially the last three examples above.

These examples are showing:

A wicked grin curled his lips.
She sent him a saucy smile
.
His curious grin...

The first three are descriptive and the last two use active verbs---curled and sent. Each gives an image of character. Authors can lighten up occasionally when other things are more important and not deepen characterization at every turn, b ut keeping the characterization vivid is important.

These three sentences are telling---He lamented, He warned, and He amended. We are told the emotion or the action but we don't see it. Notice the difference when the statement is expended into action.

He lamented.
Showing:
His face lowered to his hands while the past opportunities he'd ignored piled in the pit of his stomach.

He warned.
Showing:
His index finger shot upward and wagged in her face. "Stop it. That's enough."

He amended.
First, He amended is not a good choice since most authorities on writing ficition encourage authors to stick with asked and said as tags. If an author said: John amended his statement, technically nothing is wrong with that, but let's show it.

Showing: He shook his head, his expression knotted with tension. "Let's change that idea. It's wrong. If we go ahead as it's planned, we'll have a mess."

Can you see the difference ? Rather than just telling the reader, the example shows the reader without even mentioning the words: lamented, warned or amended. The reader doesn't need to be told since he has seen it and understands. I think you'll agree showing is far more effective than telling.

5 comments:

Pammer said...

Great job of explaining a hard concept. Thank you for this blog.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Pammer - So glad you're enjoying the blog. Wishing you happy writing.

Gail

Kevin said...

Excellent post. Thank you for sharing. :)

Camille Cannon (Eide) said...

It is a hard concept to grasp. Noah Lukeman's book helped me make my own inner ruler, which I'm still learning to use.

To help further define the term "telling" for me, I think of "drawing a conclusion" for the reader. Showing allows them to draw the conclusion themself when you give them the "facts" or factors taking place or in description.

Noah uses "the building was heavily barricaded" = telling, versus "the walls were made of stone, 20 feet thick..festooning coils of razor wire.." =showing.

So if in doubt, I ask myself, "Did I just draw a conclusion for the reader? Did I just label what I have already shown? Or have not adequetly shown?" If I'm tempted to draw a conclusion, there might be some reason, like I didn't use strong enough verbs or description.

My question: What about when a character draws a conclusion, either in inner monologue, or through dialogue? Whether they're right or wrong about what they percieve?

Like this line: His smile faded. "No, no." He was a bad liar.
(through another character's pov)
He may or may not be lying, but his actions tell the second character that he is. It is her perception of what she's seeing.
Is that still telling?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Camille - Thanks for your thoughts on showing and telling. I think using the question "Did I draw the conclusion" is a good way of looking at it. I will answer your question as a blog entry because I think it's a good one.

Thanks,
Gail