I have found that the old adage actions speak louder than words is especially true in writing. One of the more difficult elements for a writer of fiction is the use of subtlety to show who your characters are. Especially when it’s so much easier to simply have your character say, “Derek is a jerk! Can you believe what he said to Sharon?” Then there’s the narrative that is oftentimes the author’s long inner-monologue about the various failings or perfections of various characters. It’s so much easier to tell your reader what you want them to know about your characters without allowing said reader the opportunity to discover who your characters are as the story unfolds.
When I really think about the reasons for all the telling, several come to mind:
- Fear that readers won’t like your characters and that your readers won’t understand who your characters really are unless you tell them.
- Insecurity that your words won’t be good enough for your readers to see what kind of people your characters are if you try to show those attributes instead of simply stating them.
- Lack of understanding of what everyone has been going on about when they say “show, don’t tell.”
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In other words, if your readers aren’t complaining, why should you change how you write?
- Time constraints. You simply don’t have time to figure out the subtlety thing, but when you have a free moment, you’ll look into it.
- And… so on.
Here’s the deal. If you’re serious about your writing and it’s more than just a nice little hobby, it’s time to look at how you write.
Every book should ideally improve upon the last.
Those who have worked with me before know I don’t try to correct every issue in an author’s writing with a single edit. Depending on the author, that can be a lot to take in and my goal as an editor is not to discourage, but to point out the biggest issues with the current book and the way the story was written. Once those have been tackled and the next manuscript comes in, my hope is that the author learned something from the first edit and has improved her skills so that we may move on to improving other aspects of writing. I learn something new with each edit, and I hope my authors do, too. Developing your skills as a writer is a process that takes time and practice.
Telling is the ultimate safety net!
If you want to use subtlety to show who your characters are, do it through their interactions with other characters. What they do and say are just as important as what they don’t do and say. Never give too much information and lead your readers around by the nose. Frankly, you insult your readers’ intelligence when you do this because it says you don’t trust your readers to come to the right conclusions. Have a little faith. I get it. It’s a scary thing to work without that safety net, and that’s exactly what telling is: a safety net. But your readers will connect emotionally with your characters if they can identify those characteristics through words and actions. Remember, a story full of telling makes for a boring book. (Don’t be hating the messenger.)
Let’s look at two examples:
Theodore loved his father’s leather chair where he smoked his cigars and pretended he was better than everyone else.
This first example tells the reader what I want them to know about Theodore, but doesn’t show him doing anything or how he treats others.
Theodore sat down in the faded chair and caressed the creased leather arms worn smooth by generations of Carringtons. He took his time removing the cigar box from the side drawer of the massive oak desk before offering one to Derek, who waved him off.
He ran the Cuban under his nose before snipping off the end and lighting it with Father’s oversized lighter, and eyed the unnatural sheen of Derek’s polyester suit.
This second example shows the reader the same thing but this time, you witness Theodore in action. His name and attitude says uppity and you most likely identified with Derek without even knowing anything about him except that he doesn’t want a cigar and he wears a polyester suit.
So what can you do to improve your writing now and lose the safety net? If you’re already working on something and haven’t finished it, keep going! I’ll never recommend you stop mid-stream to go back and fix stuff. Why? Most people who write never finish the story. So finish the story first. This can all be done during the revision process.
Take a look at your manuscript and highlight the places where you describe your characters or their characteristics, a scene where everyone tells what’s going on, or long swaths of narrative that don’t really show anything. Next, decide if you can show what’s being told. And finally, just do it. If you’re still not sure about the showing part, run your attempts by a few trusted critique partners or beta readers and ask for feedback specifically on you attempts to show. Don’t be afraid to ask your support network to help you find those places where you could do more showing and less telling. It helps the one giving feedback if there’s something in particular that’s needed and not simply asking, “What can I do to make my story better?”
Am I suggesting that you show every aspect in excruciating detail? Please, no! Remember to find the mundane and cut as much as possible. Yes, there is some mundane detail that is needed to get from point A to point B, but it does not need to be expanded upon.
Are you going to do this perfectly the first time you try it? Of course not. But the important thing is that you start working on it and continue to hone this skill with everything you write. One way to work on this is through writing prompts and exercises. In other words, practice, practice, practice. (Hah! I sound like I do when I remind my fifteen-year-old son to practice the piano!)
Many sites offer writing prompts, including Write Divas. We have some on our blog, on our Pinterest page, and we’re always tweeting various prompts on Twitter, so feel free to check out our offering and the writing prompts available on other websites for authors.
What’s keeping you from showing instead of telling, or what tricks do you use to help you find those places you could show more? Please share your ideas!
Now… go write something!