Hi everyone, I’m here to demystify the old “show don’t tell” adage.
We’ve all heard it, but it’s often confusing and therefore difficult to apply to our own work. Telling has long been associated with bad writing, and showing with good writing. In my opinion, all of the techniques in your writing craft toolbox are dependent on one another, and it’s not possible to just learn them all and instantly be a good writer. Most of us learn one new skill at a time, and once mastered, it comes naturally to us. Showing and telling are just extra skills for your toolbox, and when broken down into bite-sized pieces, will become integral to your writing style.
Both showing and telling are valuable, and there are degrees of each. It’s not an all-in or all-out kind of thing. One creates drama and movement, and the other conveys information succinctly and poetically.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and believe the focus is usually on showing, because telling comes naturally (we are story-tellers after all), but showing is layered with components, and so takes time to master.
So, if you agree that you are telling a story, then all you have to do is learn how to spot opportunities to tell better, tell with more emotion, or show the action. That doesn’t sound too scary, right? Personally, I think it’s time to update the old adage to something like: Show and Tell Effectively.
What’s the point?
The purpose of showing and telling effectively, is to totally emerge the reader in the story. It’s about creating the ideal pace, diffusion of information, and making the most of dramatization, in order to let the reader feel the emotional ups and downs of the character.
The appeal of SHOWING is that it lets the reader draw their own conclusions from the story, and connect more deeply with the characters. The reader gets to experience events through the characters’ actions, emotions, senses, thoughts and words. Showing can add layers to characters and scenes, adding a vibrancy that makes the reader feel like they’re actually there. It has a particularly powerful effect when there is an emotional upheaval for your point of view character.
It can be exhausting to be shown the minutiae of life for three-hundred pages, and it takes more words to get the same point across. In some cases, telling is more efficient. Being told information is never as exciting as discovering it for yourself.
Telling has a tendency to distance the reader, rather than making them feel a part of the story, because there’s a tendency to see the world through the narrator’s eyes rather than the character’s. Instead, let them experience the characters’ struggles and success, and discover information in an organic way.
Telling is a valuable tool to get necessary information across, to move quickly through time, or to move your characters from one location to another without showing the whole journey. The reader has no interest in seeing everything your character does, from brushing her teeth to eating every spoonful of breakfast. Use telling to move the story forwards in a succinct way and inform the reader of information they need to know.
When to show and tell
Remember, you don’t have to choose between showing or telling; they exist in harmony.
Make the most of showing:
Effective showing and telling techniques
One of the easiest ways to make sure you are writing actively, is to just show what’s happening. Pre-empting the action is a clue that you aren’t doing this, e.g. she started to ...
Labelling emotions can be a sign that you’re missing an opportunity to engage the reader with how the character is feeling, e.g. instead of saying “she was mad”, show her punching the wall or glaring at the offender.
Avoid information dumps, which occur when the story material is poorly integrated with the action. It’s one of the main reasons telling gets a bad rap, because it slows the forward movement of the story. Instead, make sure the information is necessary, and not just to the story as a whole, but right at that moment. Then integrate it in small amounts, at appropriate times.
Description isn’t about simply listing adjectives, but about adding meaningful and specific details that layer your scene/character development. Also, make sure you use words that support the tone of the story.
Employ all of the senses to create atmosphere in a scene—not necessarily all at once though.
Create fresh metaphors and similes to compare what’s going on in the story with concepts readers are familiar with. This is a great way to build on the tone of a scene.
Dialogue is an active way for your characters to interact with one another, and keeps things interesting. The best part about it, is that it reveals so much more about the characters than what they are saying, e.g. their attitudes and beliefs, upbringing, culture and personality.
Once you master the art of showing and telling effectively, you’ll be amazed at how it lifts your storytelling, and becomes part of your writing style. You’ll see opportunities to infuse it everywhere!
I hope you feel more relaxed about showing and telling now. Learn how to realise a balance between description and brevity that will captivate readers and won’t let them go in my Show Don’t Tell Is Like A Layer Cake course.
The ultimate course to help you master emotive storytelling!
I may write romantic-suspense, but firmly believe that suspense is for every story, no matter the genre. It’s the ideal tool to compel readers to keep turning pages all the way to the end, by creating real emotional tension.
What is suspense?
Remember back to a book you just couldn’t put down. More than likely, the author made you worry about the character, and be apprehensive about the outcome of conflicts. You might have had clammy palms, a racing heart, fidgeted, or literally sat at on the edge of your seat, desperate to know what happened next. All of things are signs that the author applied suspense techniques, not just to engage you, but to throw you in the pot and seal the lid so you can feel every last ounce of emotional turmoil. The real trick is to maintain a level of uncertainty throughout the story, so the reader worries about the outcome and is left pleasantly spent by the end.
How does it apply to all genres?
The level of suspense you find in different genres does vary, as does the way information is revealed, but the suspense techniques still apply.
For example, in a Cosy Mystery the suspense will be more temperate than in a thriller. You are likely to use the relationship angst to create uncertainty, instead of the threat of imminent harm from a crazed predator or solving an enigma rather than expecting something scary to jump out of the nearest shadow. A Young Adult story may be less graphic than an adult Paranormal, both in the way intimacy and violence is portrayed, but suspense will help to make both impossible to put down.
The scenarios at the heart of each story, the locations and types of characters that populate them, will depend on the norms of each genre.
How much do I need?
It’s important to ensure you identify opportunities to increase suspense, and fully explore them, to make the most of existing tension, and squeeze every bit of emotional value from your characters. Signs that you may need to increase the suspense in your story, are if you get feedback saying your story lacked a hook, is slow in places, or just didn’t grab/engage the reader.
Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi say:
If a critique partner voices confusion over the emotional reaction of one of your characters, check to make sure the stimulus trigger is prominent.
In other words, make sure the character is behaving in a believable way, with realistic motivations.
How can you create suspense?
Authors use a range of techniques to create uncertainty for their characters, and apprehension for their readers, but it’s important to remember that creating suspense isn’t necessarily about putting your characters in physical danger. It’s about engaging the reader, making them care about your character’s journey, and then giving them good reason why their goals might not be fulfilled. Leave them wanting more, right up until the Happily Ever After.
Create an engaging character
You can do this by giving your character something they care deeply about, and then threatening to take it away, but in a romantic story none of that will matter if the reader isn’t fully engaged with the character first. You need to create a character the reader cares about. I’m not going to focus too much on emotional engagement here, but it involves creating a character the reader can identify/sympathise with, that has believable motivations, and actively pursues their goals.
Raise the stakes
The character’s goal must be important enough to have dire consequences, e.g. they don’t just want a lot of money to buy a shiny new car, but they need it to pay for their dying sister’s medical treatment.
Make it clear early on what the consequences of failure are for your character (or at least what they believe them to be at the beginning of the story). Then throw increasingly difficult situations at them, which in turn diminishes the likelihood of them succeeding. Leave your character no other option than to face her greatest emotional fear by the climax.
Giving your character a deadline to get something done is also a great way to heighten anxiety levels. You want to put them under enough pressure to expose what they’re really made of.
Hook the reader in by raising questions that make them curious, about what’s going to happen next, what might have happened in the past, and what course of action the protagonist or antagonist will take next. One way to do this, is to show the reader things that the characters don’t know. Another is to leave them hanging mid action or mid decision at the end of a chapter.
By raising doubts about how the character is going to get out of this sticky situation, or win the love of her life, you make the reader apprehensive. Do this over and over throughout the course of the story, and they’ll reach nail-biting anxiety. That’s what suspense is all about!
Use techniques like putting the character:
Alexandra Sokoloff is brilliant at having her protagonist and antagonist come so close to crossing paths as the detective follows the serial-killer’s trail of destruction, that the reader is in a constant state of panic, because disaster seems imminent over and over again.
Leave a trail of breadcrumbs
Clues aren’t just for crime stories. There are all sorts of clues and hints you can scatter along the way to build the reader’s expectations. They might be obvious, or subtle, in which case the reader realises their significance once the climax is reached.
I liken clues to a trail of breadcrumbs, because they are sprinkled in here and there in small pieces. Some of those breadcrumbs might foreshadow what’s going to happen, and others might selectively withhold information. Done properly, the reader will have just enough foresight to build their expectations of trouble/failure/ danger.
Be aware of your word choices when building suspense. Choose a word that supports the tone of the scene, and stick to straightforward words in the midst of action. Sentence length is a great way to show urgency, but even though you may use more short sentences during action scenes and longer ones during retrospection, still vary them enough to avoid monotony.
Prolong the outcome
As Nicholas Sparks said:
Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy.
If your character figured out the best course of action and achieved their goal easily, it would be a short and hassle-free story, and totally kill any tension. In order to build the suspense, you should hint at what could go wrong and draw-out the angst for as long as reasonably possible. The suspense lies in between promising something awful and it actually happening, so make the most of it.
A romantic example of this, is creating sexual tension. Reading about a couple tearing one another’s clothes off and getting hot and steamy might be a lot of fun, but it’s the way the author draws out those longing looks and tantalizing touches that lead up to the sex, which creates eager anticipation.
You can still build lulls of retrospection and small wins into the story. This provides the reader a chance to catch her breath, and is a great opportunity to anchor them in your character’s motivations and expectations, ready for the next onslaught of drama.
Remember, it’s not the outcome that creates suspense, but the uncertainty of the journey. I hope I have inspired you to tease out every last morsel of suspense in your story. If you’d like to chat in-depth about this topic or get some personalised feedback about adding suspense to your story, then grab a place in my next The Pressure Cooker of Suspense course.
The ultimate course to help you create delicious tension!
I used to think Deep Third-person Point of View (DPOV) was one of those tricky sixth-sense kind of concepts that only the Dalai Lama understood.
Have you ever had feedback that says ‘author intrusion’ or ‘lacks emotional punch’? Have you heard DPOV mentioned in literary circles, but figured it was only for writers of erotic stories? Did you see DPOV fly past at a workshop, but weren’t able to catch hold of it? Then breathe easy, because I’m here to reassure you that DPOV is something already lurking on your pages, you just have to learn to identify and make the most of it.
Deep POV is a relatively recent concept (the last couple of decades), but it is all the rage, particularly in romance literature.
Clearing up any confusion
First up I want to promise that you don’t have to learn a new POV. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to discuss the pros and cons of the different POVs, so I’m going to assume you understand how to write in third person POV, as most romance stories are told.
When you’re writing in the third-person subjective (showing the story through one character at a time), DPOV is simply a way of bringing the reader even closer to your character, which will result in a strong emotional response. And that’s a good thing!
So what is it?
Rather than telling the reader the story, DPOV is a way of moving them closer to the POV character, and using her senses so the reader can experience it through her. Pretend for a moment that you’re watching your POV character ¾ let’s call her Alice ¾ through the lens of a movie camera. Alice is strolling through a lush, tropical garden, reaching out to touch a bright orange Bird of Paradise flower.
Now zoom the camera in so that you are sitting on Alice’s shoulder, where you can better see the textures of the plants and the vivid blue centre of the flower. But you still haven’t reached DPOV.
It’s time to put the camera down and use your magic powers ¾ otherwise known as an imagination ¾ to transport yourself into Alice’s mind. Now you can feel the prickle of the grass under her bare feet, see the waxy texture of the stiff, orange flower, hear the musical lilt of the nearby creek flowing through the gorge, smell the damp moss on the stones, and when she licks her lips, taste the remnants of the chocolate she has been sucking.
Do you see what DPOV has achieved? Rather than watching Alice’s life unfold, you are experiencing it as she does.
Ideally you don’t want readers to notice how cleverly you’ve used the language, because you want them to be so engaged with your character, that they are completely immersed in her thoughts and sensations. The danger of not fully engaging the reader, is that they won’t feel emotionally invested in the story, and are more likely to walk away from it.
Getting into your character’s head
It’s important to know your character intimately, so you will know how she thinks, feels and acts. You can do this by understanding what she thinks and feels, and why, where she came from and where she’s going, and events and persons who have influenced her. The deeper your character development, the more likely you are to be able to experience the world the way your character would.
If each of us entered the same lounge room, we would experience it differently because of the influences of our life experiences, hopes and fears. A seamstress might notice the crooked seam on the curtains, a horse-rider might notice the jodhpurs hung over a chair, a gardener would marvel at the delicate blooms on the window sill, etc.
Remember that your characters are likely to have their own speech patterns, phobias, ideas about social etiquette, etc. All of these things will add layers to your character, but their flaws especially will help readers relate to and sympathise with them.
When to use DPOV
It can feel a bit scary when you first start to explore DPOV, because it almost feels like you’re slipping into first person, but you’re not. You’re still using ‘he’ and ‘she’, but you’re getting rid of the narrator as much as possible, and just leaving the fabulous story and charming characters.
It’s not appropriate to use DPOV all the time, just as you can’t always show instead of tell. There are times when you just need to drive the story forwards, like explaining the relationship between characters, or showing a big-picture scene. But only take that route if you can’t deliver the information another way, like through dialogue or interactions. Once you get used to using DPOV, you’ll be surprised at how it will affect everything you write. One of the huge benefits is making your writing more direct, because you will get rid of superfluous filter words.
As you can imagine, it would be exhausting to feel every emotion your character feels about everything from a cup of tea to the neighbour’s new car, but you can still use DPOV by incorporating your character’s senses. Let your reader see, hear, smell, touch and taste the environment as your character interacts with it.
Let’s talk tactics
DPOV makes your words work harder. Not only are they telling a story, but everyone is chosen carefully to layer in character development, emotions, tone, themes and attitude.
For example, instead of: Bob decided that this dawn signalled a new start for him.
Dig deeper: Bob threw open the door and sucked in a lungful of crisp mountain air. It was the best air he’d ever breathed. No city fumes or skyscrapers blocking the sun, and best of all, no Jenny strangling him with impossible rules and requirements.
So, do you have to use italics when you’re in a character’s head? If the character wants to break from third-person POV and think ‘I did this’, then yes, but the beauty of DPOV is that this is hardly ever necessary, and that helps the story to flow.
Don’t pre-empt actions and feelings, just show them happening.
Instead of: Sally’s skin began to prickle, and she wondered when the snarling dog would attack.
Try: Sally’s skin prickled. The snarling dog stalked closer, muscles bunch, haunches lowered, ready to launch at her.
Steer clear of passive voice, which is telling the reader that something is being done to someone, rather than by your character.
Instead of: Her face was stroked.
Try: He stroked her face.
Drawing on your own experiences and emotions can be helpful to really immerse yourself in the world of your character. The situation your character is in may be different, but you’ll be able to draw on the details you remember of a time, place or event, and the emotions they evoked for you.
[Top Secret: I find “The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a very helpful tool when I run out of different ways to show similar emotional responses.]
Many romance writers alternate between the hero and heroine’s POVs. If you do this, keep in mind that you want to experiencing the story through the character who has the most to lose, or will be most affected at that time. While you are in a character’s head, remember that you can only view the world as he/she genuinely would.
Using a lot of dialogue tags is another reminder that the reader is being told a story. Sure, they are necessary sometimes, but don’t overdo them. Quite often you can use language and movements that the reader associates with that character.
One of the most helpful things I learnt was to banish any distancing words, because they immediately let the reader know they are being told a story, rather than just letting them experience it. They also make your writing less direct, which provides yet another opportunity for your reader to wonder if there is still a piece of cake in the fridge, and put your book down.
Here are some examples of distancing words: saw, watched, thought, wondered, felt, seemed, looked, almost, noticed, realised, decided, heard.
Instead of: Alice felt sad at leaving her sister, Liz, behind.
Try experiencing it through her: Alice blinked furiously to stymie her tears, and waved as Liz raced along the train platform. It was only for a year, and Liz was old enough to fend for herself now. She hoped.
The second example uses DPOV to let the reader experience what Alice’s emotions feel like, with the added bonus of providing more insight into her hopes and fears.
Instead of: Alice heard footsteps behind her and turned to survey the dark alley.
Try: There it was again; a muffled footstep. Alice whirled around and glared into the dark mouth of the alley, heart thumping a staccato beat.
DPOV is all about weaving a character’s senses and emotions through the narrative. By inviting your reader right into the minds and hearts of your characters, you will allow them to experience the characters’ hopes and fears, exhilarating first kisses and heart-wrenching losses. For a little while the reader will be completely immersed in the story, and remember it long after he/she puts the book down.
I hope I have demystified DPOV and made you feel comfortable using it.