Voice

Show AND Tell: Navigating the Nuances of Showing vs. Telling

Hi writers! We thought we’d kick off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we will be tackling 4 real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about the nuances of showing vs. telling.

QUESTION: The classic writing advice is, "show, don't tell." But is that always good advice? Don't the best novels show AND tell? How do you know if you're "telling" too much, and what counts as telling?

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As kids, we loved show and tell day at school. Proudly brandishing a souvenir from a trip or a prized family heirloom, we would capture the attention of our peers and then describe the object’s elaborate origin. Our description of its significance and why it’s special provided a glimpse into who we are and what’s important to us.

This simple presentation uses storytelling and visual aids to stir an interest in an object people would otherwise find insignificant. Show and tell relies on effective storytelling to take us into someone else’s world. Can we learn something from this grade school tradition in our writing techniques?

Writes always hear the mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Descriptions of scenes and dramatization of actions take precedence over the exposition and summary that simply take up space without accomplishing anything in an engaging fashion. Readers love to vividly imagine the characters’ expressions, feelings, and actions that remain unwritten in ink. This ability to stir a reader’s imagination is powerful, letting the story unfold with minimal hand-holding.

A story that simply tells its readers what is happening loses their attention fast. But that’s not to say telling is an inefficient technique that is completely forbidden. Rather, it is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit that can, and should, be used. Just like any craft, the best stories use a variety of tools.

The classic advice should be modified to say “show more than tell.”

Achieving this balance between showing and telling can be difficult. Learning exactly how to “show” a scene requires a lot of practice to begin with, but with practice makes perfect, so keep writing and rewriting to hone these skills. As you master the art of storytelling, keep these guidelines in mind.

  • Avoid detail-dumping. When you are giving background information, make sure the details are necessary. Don’t overwhelm readers by dumping the entire backstory of a character or society in the first few pages. Weave these details in throughout the story when it is necessary to develop characterization or advance the plot. Write every word with a purpose, and make every sentence worth something to the reader.

  • Make your writing cinematic. Evoke emotion with your writing and give your characters enough movement so you don’t have to explicitly list personality traits; instead, your readers can just tell who the character is from his or her diction and action, or lack thereof. Use all five senses in your writing so that your readers feel an emotional response without you telling them how they should be feeling.  

  • Put your readers in the scene. This is a good technique to help minimize unnecessary telling. Prioritize first-hand information over second-hand by letting readers see the action happen with their own eyes (or the mind’s eye). No one likes to hear about a past event because they weren’t there when it occurred. There is no emotional attachment to the event or the character. Instead, if you’re giving important backstory, tell it through a flashback. Let the reader experience the scene in real time rather than read about something that’s already happened.

  • Replace adjectives with actions. If your character goes through a tough breakup or suffers a major loss in the family, they would feel sad. But how sad do they feel, and what do they do with that sadness? Do they completely shut down and withdraw socially? Do they reach out for consolation and company? Do they continue functioning as if nothing happened? Not only do these details convey their sadness, they provide more insight into how the character acts during this sadness than if you simply said they were sad. By replacing adjectives with actions, you achieve the technique of showing, while revealing more about a character than you would otherwise.

  • Believe in your readers’ abilities. By describing something rather than simply telling it, you’re giving your readers some credit to their ability to imagine what is happening. You don’t have to spell out every single detail for them. Instead, let their imagination take hold as you plant the seeds of emotion and action in their brains with your words. Push them in the right direction, but let them form their own conclusions and interpretations. With each word that adds to their mental scene, they’ll feel more invested in the plot and connected to the characters.

  • Write. Write. Write. Revising and reworking scenes is the best way to practice this technique. Your first draft might consist of you simply explaining the scene, and that’s okay. On your second draft, start taking out the mechanics of the scene and adding descriptions. The third draft should involve more rewriting, and the fourth and fifth drafts even more so. Making mistakes is a normal part of writing, and only through trial and error will you be able to learn how to perfect the art of showing.

“Show, don’t tell” is important advice to consider, but don’t let it consume your writing. If telling works in the moment and conveys what you need, do that. Additionally, showing doesn’t mean never telling. Explore the nuances of your writing to discover how you can incorporate both into your story or when you need to utilize one technique over the other.

The best writing finds the perfect balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, as writers, we have to channel our inner child and see how show and tell still has its benefits.  

Should You Wave Your Prologue Goodbye? (When Prologues Work and When They Don’t)

Does your book-in-progress have a prologue? If so, that might be a problem. According to the dubious wisdom of the blogosphere and the crotchety advice of literary agents who see too many duds in the slush pile, prologues are frowned upon. Agent Kimiko Nakamura wrote in Writer’s Digest that “almost every agent agrees that poorly executed prologues are the quickest route back to slushville. Prologues reflexively cause agents to skip to Chapter 1 without a look back.”

With warnings like that one, it’s no wonder writers cut their prologue for fear of ending up in the trash folder. As a freelance book editor, though, I’ve seen writers alter the strongest parts of their manuscript because of a one-size-fits-all decree they’ve read on an agent’s (or another writer’s) blog. By deleting your prologue, you might be deleting the best part of your book—the part of your book, even, that would get an agent to request more pages.

So what makes a good prologue good, and a bad prologue bad? I’ll delve into detailed examples below, but first, here are a few rules of thumb.

Good Prologues Oftentimes…

… Occur in a different time and place than the rest of the book. (But they shouldn’t be used as information dumps for backstory. Details about past events should be integrated throughout the novel via exposition, dialogue, or a character’s inner thoughts.)

 … Showcase a narrative perspective that diverges from the rest of the book. (An omniscient prologue, for example, in a third-person limited novel.)

… Are written in a different tone than the rest of the book. (Heightened prose if the book’s prose is simple; minimalist if the book’s prose is florid.)

… Provide key information that the novel’s primary narrator doesn’t know about. (Again, though, this should be a limited, strategic piece of information; prologues shouldn’t be used as information dumps.)

Bad Prologues Are Generally…

… Conspicuous information dumps for information and backstory. (Yeah, this happens a lot.)

… Written as exposition rather than as a compelling scene/s. (Prolonged exposition is a sign that your prologue is an information dump.)

… Written in the same point-of-view or narrative perspective as the rest of the book.

… Written in a melodramatic tone. (This often corresponds to a scene that’s a failed hook.)

…. Focused on a dramatic scene that doesn’t end up connecting in an interesting way with the rest of the book.

… Written after the rest of the book was finished because the writer worried that Chapter 1 wasn’t good or didn’t have an enticing hook. (It’s better to work on fixing Chapter 1.)

Prologues as a Whisper to Your Reader

Author Bharti Kirchner wrote an excellent article for The Writer magazine in which she explains that a prologue, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy novels, “can provide readers with a basic understanding of the setting and culture of an alternate universe before the story begins.” Consider the prologue of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. In it, three men of the Night’s Watch —a military group guarding a great northern wall — search the wilderness for eight dead bodies. As the three men discuss what killed these people — did they freeze to death? — the reader is overhearing their conversation, thereby learning all sorts of tidbits about Martin’s fictional world.

After the men discover that the bodies are missing, they’re attacked by a group of mysterious creatures. One of the Night’s Watch men, Will, watches as a terrifying shadow confronts Royce, his Night’s Watch compatriot:

A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees.

Will then witnesses an event that will become pivotal to the Game of Thrones universe for five books to come (and counting). He sees that Royce doesn’t stand a chance in fighting this fearsome apparition because its weapon causes Royce’s sword to shatter:

A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles… He [Will] found what was left of the sword a few feet away, the end splintered and twisted like a tree struck by lightning.

This prologue notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is written in the close third-person, with each chapter told from the point-of-view of a different main character. At the book’s outset, none of these characters have seen an “Other,” as these creatures are called, so Martin used his prologue to establish a delicious, suspenseful case of dramatic irony: The reader knows that the Others are real, but the book’s narrators don’t. In an interview with The Writerauthor Jennie Shortridge described this situation well: “I like to read prologues because I know the author is whispering a secret to me,” she said.

Many newbie writers withhold information from the reader for too long in an attempt to create suspense. But why should a reader care about a mystery if they don’t even know its parameters? In Game of Thrones, Martin provides just enough information to make the reader terrified of the White Walkers (let’s just drop this “Others” nonsense), but little enough to let the reader join the book’s characters in solving the myriad mysteries surrounding them.

Prologues That Are Actually Chapter Ones (And Chapter Ones That Are Actually Prologues)

As an editor, I often notice that the first 50 pages of a manuscript contain a handful of sections that could each be the book’s first page. The author didn’t know where to begin, so instead of choosing a beginning, they chose two or three, and then struggled with how to sequence them. I call these “false starts,” and they’re usually well-written because the author imagined each as the grandiose opening sequence. These paragraphs stand out because they don’t integrate well with the surrounding material.

A clumsy solution to this multiplicity of false starts is to make one of them the prologue. In an interview forThe Writer, author Jennie Shortridge said that “the most common mistake I see when writers try to use prologues is that they’re simply writing Chapter 1 and calling it a prologue.”

While a good prologue stands apart from the rest of the story — taking place in a different time, or told from a different point-of-view — an unnecessary prologue is often told by the same narrator, and written in the same style, as the rest of the book. Even if well-written, this type of prologue might turn an agent off because it indicates that the author simply couldn’t figure out how to integrate the prologue’s material somewhere else. “They [prologues] are sorely overused and seem like a cheap device,” literary agent Andrea Hurst told The Writer. “Better for writers to be creative—come up with ways around them and start the novel with a great first chapter.”

The Book Thief is an example of a prologue that’s good, but might as well have been called Chapter 1. In it, the book’s omniscient narrator, Death Himself (a grim reaper type figure), tells the reader about the book’s protagonist, a girl who he calls the book thief. He (Death) informs the reader that terrible things will happen in this girl’s future, and Chapter 1 begins by detailing the first of these terrible things.

Alluding to future (or past) events in an omniscient voice is classic prologue material, but in this particular case, it turns out that the entire book is narrated by this glib Death guy, and he oftentimes alludes coyly to future events. The Book Thief’s prologue could easily have been the the first chapter. The litmus test is to simply imagine that the prologue is labeled “Chapter 1,” and that the current Chapter 1 is labeled “Chapter 2.” If everything still makes sense (or reads even better, as might be the case), then you probably have a chapter, not a prologue.

We also see Chapter Ones that would have made great prologues. The first Harry Potter book is a perfect example. Remember that opening scene where Dumbledore, Professor McGonagall, and Hagrid bring baby Harry to his aunt and uncle’s doorstep? That scene conspicuously stands apart from the rest of the book, which is mostly told from the limited perspective of 10-year-old Harry. In the opening, though, an omniscient narrator holds the reigns, and we glimpse the inner thoughts of Dumbledore, McGonagall, Hagrid, and Harry’s aunt and uncle.

Yet that opening is labeled Chapter One. The commencement of Harry Potter’s POV starts with Chapter Two, and Chapter Two begins with a sentence that effectively bridges the 10-year gap between the two chapters: “Nearly ten years had passed since the Dursleys had woken up to find their nephew on the front step, but Privet Drive had hardly changed at all.”

This little quark in one of the world’s most widely-read books reminds us that “chapter” and “prologue” are just labels, after all, and while there are widely-recognized formats for which label correspond to which narrative tactic, authors sidestep the rules all the time. In his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez evaded the issue altogether by using unlabeled breaks between chunks of text rather than parts and chapters. Marquez’ unique decision reminds us that whatever the label, those spaces of white between sections do seem to be vitally important. Whatever the case, most remember the opening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as being a prologue; indeed, a quick Google search revealed bloggers using it as an example of an effective prologue.

Another Chapter One that’s really a prologue is the first chapter of Fight Club, where Edward Norton, errrr, the book’s unnamed protagonist holds a gun to his throat/Tyler Durden’s throat. Who knows, maybe someone told both Chuck Palahniuk and J.K. Rowling that literary agents don’t like prologues, so they slapped on a Chapter One.

So… Should I Keep My Prologue?

If you’ve carefully considered the components of a bad prologue and are still convinced that yours is good, go ahead and keep it if you’re planning to self-publish. If you’re querying agents, you can tailor your strategy query-by-query. If an agent has specified that they don’t like prologues, you should query without it, or make your prologue the first chapter instead—absolutely don’t this, though, if changing the prologue to “Chapter 1” creates a bad transition into Chapter 2. If you don’t know an agent’s stance toward prologues, the safer bet might still be to cut the prologue since prologue hostility seems widespread.

That being said, agents dislike prologues only because they’ve read so many bad ones. It takes only one sentence to recognize good writing, so if your prologue has a good start, the agent will keep reading. A friend of mine received offers from two agents (and requests for full reads from many more) based on a submission that included a prologue—a very good prologue. In the end, it’s the writing that counts, and they’re not just saying that.


Katherine Don is a journalist and author or co-author of eight nonfiction books, including Power of the Dog from St. Martin’s Press, Armchair Reader: The Book of Myths and Misconceptions from Publications International, and The Story of Harper Lee, a YA biography of Harper Lee from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Katherine’s essays and journalism have appeared at Salon, The Atlantic online, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a regular contributor at Bustle.com and Romper.com. Her first screenplay, a short film that she co-wrote with a friend, was the first-place winner in the screenwriting category at the 2014 Los Angeles Movie Awards. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree in biological anthropology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in literary journalism from NYU.

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Genres of interest: Narrative nonfiction, academic works, books of journalism, essay collections, memoir, health/wellness, book proposals, and other nonfiction book projects.

Available for: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, query letter editing, and private writing coaching.

Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.

Don’t Give Me That Look! How to Improve the Emotional Cues in Your Manuscript

I’ve written blog posts about gesture before, but this particular one has been keeping me up at night! As I am about to embark on revisions for my upcoming novel (forthcoming in 2016), I keep thinking about how to capture the “looks” between two characters. It’s common to find “looks” within a manuscript. After all, how often does one character look or “gaze” at another in a moment of dramatic or even romantictension. Ooh La La!

I have a challenge for you, dear reader! Go to the story you’re working on, open the file, and do a word search. Find any incarnation of the word “look/looks/looking.”

Hurts, doesn’t it? YIKES.

In my WIP right now, I have 176 “looks.” I’m not sure how horrible that is as of yet because I’m still editing, but I know that I tend to overuse “looks” so I thought I would share some of my writing/revision process.

I keep wondering what it is that I hope to elicit from “a look” between characters. In cinema, we have the advantage of various zoomed in shots, savvy editing, camera angels, etc. On film, a look between two characters can say so much more than a line of dialogue ever could. Yet, in fiction, we have the hefty job of creating the cinematic experience in the mind of our readers. We need to create the camera angles and trigger an emotional response with our words.

We also need to ensure that a look will show us something about our characters and their world instead of just telling the readers that eyes are meeting. We can’t assume that the reader is going to understand what is being unsaid between two characters. It is up to us, the writers, to make the gaze mean more. As I revise and as you revise, I hope that these three tactics will help you make the most out of this kind of unspoken communication.

THREE WAYS TO MAKE “A LOOK” WORK HARDER (AKA I am trying to take my own advice):

1. Make sure that the look reveals something important/unknown about your character.

Who are the two people looking at one another? Why is the look important? If two characters make eye contact that doesn’t illuminate something about the characters or their relationship, then we don’t need it.

Now, I’m not saying that every single look in a manuscript has to carry weight. Generally, when you have two characters in a scene together and one looks at the other, you need to consider what is it you are trying to communicate. Here’s an example from my current WIP:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who meets my eyes and then quickly looks away. “Take the role. It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

What I am trying to show there is that Lila is self-righteous. She’s hurt my character badly, but doesn’t want to make eye contact because she’s a jerk. Have I shown that? Nope. I need to make the moment work harder so that the reader understands Lila’s character through that shared gaze.

I don’t know if this is how I’ll ultimately end up revising but I could try something like this:

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hall says.

“You do what you want,” I say to Lila who snaps at her gum, eyes to her cell phone, and with a casual flip of her hand, tosses her hair over her shoulder. I’ve never hated the smell of bubble gum so much in my life. “Take the role,” I say to her smacking jaw. “It’s yours. I don’t want any part of this.”

I’ve added action, I’ve made Lila gesture differently, revealing her indifference and also employed sensory detail so that we know how my character feels about Lila’s behavior.

2. The “look”” needs to either be the focal point of the scene or it needs to push the plot forward in some way. Again, not every single “look” can matter but the ones that do should earn their place within the narrative.

Ask yourself: What can the look between your two characters change/reveal? If the answer is nothing, then think deeper and reveal the information between them in a new or varied away. This leads me to my last suggestion.

3. Deepen the gesture.  Is “looking” the only way that people interact with one another? No way!

Consider the emotional moment that is occurring between these two characters. Perhaps all of these “looks” are really a roadmap for you to go back and deepen the relationships between these two characters when you are ready to revise. As you draft, leave all the “looks” in as placeholders, but definitely go back.

When you do, ask yourself what other ways these two characters can interact? Sensory detail? Touch? Food? Action/Reaction? What is the look standing in for? What do your characters want to say?

Well, that’s it for me! I hope that I’ve illuminated some tactics to try to deepen the way your characters inhabit the pages of your story!

I wish I could go on and on about this! In fact, I probably could.

Literary Diversity Lesson in Southeast Asia

Sorry for the lack of a blog lately. I’ve beenon vacation in Southeast Asia. I’ve had much good food across three cultures; met many charming, generous, and educational people; fell for thirty-six hours to dysentery; and even got to feel – I mean really, really feel – first world guilt; all book-ended by two thirty-hour flight combos. I’ve been home three days now, and I’m still a little exhausted and exhilarated. As someone once said of traveling, I didn’t just gain a new perspective, I gained new eyes.

So I’m better able to look at that whole first world guilt thing with a little more perspective. And I’m also able to look at the other side–that distinctly American sense of pride that much of the world (rightly) considers arrogance–with a little less shame as well.

Don’t worry, I wont go into all that here. I mostly just wanted an excuse to post some pictures from and brag about my trip. And these issues of Western imperialism, past and present, actually tie into the subject of this post. At least they do in my brain.

That’s because I’m writing about literary diversity.

No, really.

I’ve been contemplating the lack of diversity in my manuscript. What will be my debut novel is the story of young white man who mostly interacts with older white men. Don’t worry, this is not a synopsis. But, mostly due to white guilt, I do feel compelled to mention that there are two major female characters, one of whom used to be a man. So my story’s not completely overridden with Y chromosomes. And, as has recently been pointed out to me, I don’t ever specify the ethnicity of my characters. They could be any ethnicity of Texan. Even still, I think it’s safe to assume that most readers will construct my characters with a certain WASPishness after they look at the headshot inside the back cover.

But, as I said, my WIP will be my first novel. Which is why I’ve decided I’m not going to push too hard to widen its gene pool, so to speak. I’m going to let it be about a white boy in a mostly white world. Whether I like it or not, I’m about as WASP as they come, so it makes sense that I should start my novel writing career with a WASPy cast of characters. I’m writing what I know and settling into my voice. I’m not worrying about exploring other, less comfortable points-of-view.

Yet.

That comes next.

And in the meantime, here’s a picture of a banyan tree eating a 6th century Hindu Wat: