Saturday, May 14, 2011

Storymaker Conference - Report 3: Show, Don't Tell

This post was eaten when Blogger had indigestion. It was restored minus its comments
and with distorted labels. When I edited it to correct the labels, it posted it as of today.
It was actually published on March 11th.

One very valuable class I attended was taught by Annette Lyon on Show, Don't Tell. I'd heard good things about Annette's class from other conference attendees, and I was glad it was offered twice, so I didn't have to decide between two good things. Annette used a lot of exercises and visuals, which helped me a lot.

Telling has the writer interpreting events, feelings, etc. for the reader, whereas showing allows readers to experience the scenes for themselves. We need to trust that the readers will 'get it' without us spelling it out for them.

Point of view (POV) is the filter the story is being shown through, and if we're using multiple POVs we need to consider how differently the various people might look at a scene and interpret it. Annette showed a picture and had everyone describe the scene by showing and then had two people come up and read what they'd written. It was fascinating to see what had drawn the attention of the writers. I hadn't noticed the room's interior because I'd focused on what was outside the window.

This exercise made me think of the way Rowling handled the Harry Potter series. The books are written in third person but a very tight third person. With a handful of exceptions, everything we see is through the Harry filter. If he didn't hear or see it, neither did we.

POV can be a very effective way to show, but we need to make sure the POV doesn't intrude. And we have to be careful not to head hop.

Some words that signal you're telling (this was a real eye opener for me):
  • realized
  • listened
  • watched
  • noticed
  • thought
  • felt
  • saw
Show thoughts and emotions powerfully and avoid words with multiple meanings. Be specific. Don't just say it was a car; say what kind of car it was, color, etc.

Have you found any ways that help you spot when you're telling?


  1. The list of verbs to avoidis very useful - thank you for sharing. I am guilty of using some of these even when in deep POV. Shall watch out for them now!

  2. I have a rather large cast of characters (more people to kill along the way). So its important not to head hop too much. Stick with that tight Third Person POV and a few main characters. Thanks for the list. I'll keep an eye open for them while writing today.

  3. Hmmm, that list of words is interesting. I think I'm going to go do a quick search of the MS, as I think I may have some showing to do. :P

  4. Yes, Paula. It was an eye opener for me. I'd already become sensitive to "was" because of autocrit's "overused words" scan, but I hadn't considered the others.

    Chase, so you're one of those writers, huh? Well, I shouldn't point fingers since people die in my books, too.

    Same here, L.G.!

  5. Oh golly, this is such a problem for me. Those verbs though are fabulous (I'm off to search/find in my ms). Feel is another one.

  6. Whoops! Just read it again and "feel" is in the list. Sorry :(

  7. I went to that class as well. I REALLY liked the list of words. It's things like that list that make understanding the craft more practical. It is something you can really get your hands into.

  8. I missed this class, so thanks for posting. In fact, now that I've discovered your blog, I'll be back to read your other posts. :)

  9. I learned a lot from this class of Annette's as well. I love it when I hear something new!

  10. Great article. I think I am going to repost it, if that's okay...

  11. Sue, I know what you mean. They're such good words ... if used correctly. It's the learning what's correct that's the journey.

    Shelly, that's exactly what I thought when Annette started listing the words. *lightbulb goes on*

    Tamara, nice to meet you!

    Valerie, it must make the teachers feel good, when people come away with practical things, useful tips. That's the stuff I love the most about my day job conferences, walking away with something I can apply right now.

    Lara, that's fine. Thanks.

  12. P.S. It would be awesome if you could also give some tips about better ways to describe what the character is experiencing -- going through -- besides "telling" with words such as "realized", "saw", etc. I know I make this mistake all the time! But what are some good ways to show more? What words are more "showy"? Thanks!

  13. I just discovered your blog, Donna, and I'm so glad I did. This was so helpful, and gave me a lot to think about. The list of words is definitely an eye-opener!!

  14. I think whenever there's a break in the flow of the story, it's usually a problem with telling. Some things need to be told, though. It makes a work better when there's less telling, but I know readers don't notice it half as much as writers. For many people, I think, showing comes naturally. And those people are like, "Huh?" when the concept is explained to them. I'm not making much sense here. Let me just say: Thanks for sharing...great post!

  15. Oh! You lost all your comments (I lost my whole post!).
    I loved this and the verbs list so much, do you mind if I post a link to it on my blog Lauracea?

  16. Sue, I was happy just to see the post come back. I didn't want to have to try and re-create it, since I wasn't bright enough to write it in Word. I may start doing that.

    Feel fre to link to it.

  17. Thanks for sharing Donna. I have a question though. Did they say why not to head hop when you're narrating in 3dr? I like the Harry Potter example. But I've read books like "Fablehaven" that I'm reading right now, and he head hops and I like it!

    S.B. Niccum
    Author Website

  18. S.B., a minimal of head hopping is okay, but you should separate the sections or it gets confusing to the readers about whose heads they're in at any particular time. It's a clarity issue.

  19. Clarity is one issue. It can be irritating if not confusing for a reader to try to keep track of who is thinking the interior dialogue, describing the setting, or narrating the action.

    But there are other issues.

    The most important is watering down the drama. A scene can take up an entire chapter. Or it can be one of multiple scenes within a chapter, split of course, with a scene break (those cute little asterisks or whatever). A scene has a number of structural compoenents, the most important being, building the drama to a high point. You build that drama by carefully pacing the tension, obstacles, action, dialogue, interior dialouge until you create a climax moment in your scene. If you jump from one point of view character to another and then back again, you are essentially sharing the drama between multiple characters. And the dramatic high point for one character may be a yawn moment for another. Jumping from head to head may make it a lot easier on the author, but its a drama killer for sure.

    And there are a lot of other reasons to stay with one point of view character through the entire scene. We've already mentioned clarity. And we also warned about watering down the drama of your scene.

    Now, how about revelation. There are things the character and the reader know. There are things that the reader knows that the character does not. And there are things that the character knows that the reader does not know (this one is rare, but it does happen). If you're jumping from head to head, its very difficult to create a higtehend level of suspence. You end up telling the reader about the suspence, but its hard to actually create the suspence in real time. And your suspenceful moments end up more like TELLING an emotion rather than allowing the reader to have an OH MY GOSH moment, as the revelation descends on them. Or to be screaming DO NOT OPEN THAT DOOR because the reader knows what's behind it, but the character does not. Jumping heads will give the reader the sense that, hey, just tell me what's going on, because you can do that. You're the author. And this whole thing is bogus because you can jump around from head to head.

    Which leads us to invisibility. The author should try to become invisible. That's why you SHOW instead of TELL. Telling your story announces to the reader that you are busy at your writing desk telling directly to the reader your story. Not to mention that telling a story shows a lack of confidence in your reader. If you tell your story, its like the director of a play, running out between acts and screaming to the audicene: Did you get it? Did you see how her infidelity has destroyed his confidence in himself? Did you? Of course they audience gets it and the director's intrusion is demeaning to the theatre goers. Jumping heads does the same thing. Its the author revealing that they are there, trying to get across the story so clearly that they reveal themselves, jump around into other heads, in order to make sure you get it. You got it and you don't need the author to freak out and tell you about it.

    So there you have JUST A FEW of many reasons NOT TO JUMP HEADS. And stay in the Point of View of the same character from the beginning of your scene to the end.

    Good luck with your writing!

  20. Brilliant explanation, Anonymous.

  21. So glad I found your blog, off to do some snooping!

  22. I'll have to bookmark that, anonymous. Than you!


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