Show don’t Tell – Post 4 of 4

showdontellHi there again. This is the final post in a four part series. If you’re looking for any of the other posts, they can be found below.

Post 1: What is “Show don’t Tell”
Post 2: How do we know if we are using “Show don’t Tell”
Post 3: When is it ok to “Tell” instead of “Show”
Post 4: Showing inner thoughts and other “Show don’t Tell” myths.
Extra : More articles on “Show don’t Tell”

In this post we’re going to look at our character’s inner thoughts. We’ll also talk about some other “show don’t tell” myths.

But let’s start with inner thoughts. A fair argument could be made that inner thoughts are a form of “telling.” After all, we are telling the reader what the character is thinking. However, if inner thoughts are done correctly they can be a powerful form of showing.

To understand this, we have to go back to the second post where we talked about a test to determine if we were “showing” or “telling.” Essentially the test is asking ourselves how we conveyed something to the reader. Did we come out and tell the reader our Main Character was angry? Or did we show the reader an MC with clenched fists and flaring nostrils?

The same test applies to inner thoughts. Let’s say our character is upset at some guy. In our writing we could give our character a thought like this: “I was so mad at him.”

This doesn’t have much impact, because we are telling the reader about our MC’s emotions. We conveyed the fact the MC is mad, by literally telling the reader. We can do better than that.

Let’s rewrite the inner thoughts of our character who is mad at some guy.

“Who did he think he was? I just worked 12 hours straight, standing in knee-deep pig crap, to cover up a mistake he made. And all he could say to me is where’s my dinner, baby?”

In the rewrite, we don’t come out and tell the reader the MC is mad, but is there any doubt?

Reading those two examples, which one evokes more of an emotional response? In the second scene, can you feel the anger and indignation the MC has because this low-life stuck her with the short end of the stick and doesn’t seem to care less that he did. If something like that happened to you, would you feel mad too?

So inner thoughts are a powerful way to convey a character’s emotional state. Just be very careful not to outright state what the emotion is, because it won’t have the effect you think it will. People won’t feel an emotion just because we (writers) tell them to. They aren’t going to feel mad or happy or sad, just because the MC is thinking about how mad or happy or sad they are. Instead, they should be thinking about what it is that makes them so mad or happy or sad. (By the way the same rules apply for your character’s dialogue.)

Let’s take another example. In this case, I’m going to include a physical cue (slumping shoulders) and then go into the MC’s inner thoughts.

Mia’s shoulders slumped. This is how the name calling always started. First the other kids would stare. Then there would be the pointing and the hushed whispers, followed by the well-meaning adults telling the kids not to treat others differently. But the adults were no better. They would talk to her using voices too thick with sweetness, the whole time carefully focusing their gaze everywhere except at her deformity. Why did it always have to be like this?

So what is Mia feeling here? What is the reader feeling? Mia’s inner thoughts never come out and say she is feeling shame, but we know she is. In fact, hopefully the reader is feeling that shame (and a good dose of sympathy) right along with Mia.

The physical cue of slumping the shoulders creates a nice lead in. It’s a hint that Mia is feeling depressed or let down…and then we give the reader full access to Mia’s thoughts. A powerful combination, and in my opinion an excellent way to incorporate “showing” in your writing.

Show don’t tell myths.

So let’s wrap this whole series up with some thoughts on myths surrounding “show don’t tell.”

Myth #1: To use “show don’t tell” all you have to do is write about physical actions, instead of emotions.

The theory is as long as we just show  the character’s facial expressions and movements, then we never run the risk of falling into “telling” mode. While it’s true that we won’t be telling, it’s also true that we will get some very over-the-top writing.

Take this example: Mitch clenched his fists, his lips twisting into a snarl. His eyes flashed with lightning, hot breath shot from his nostrils and his heart hammered in his chest like a runaway freight train.

Ok, ok, we get it. The guy is mad. But wow does that writing sound clunky and overdone. The problem with writing this way is you quickly run out of physical traits and facial expressions to describe an emotion. The next time any character is mad, are you going to write about clenched fists and flashing eyes? That becomes tiresome for the reader very quickly.

Worse though, this type of writing doesn’t evoke a very deep emotional response. Yes, we see Mitch standing there all in a huff, but we don’t know why he is so mad. We have trouble empathizing with his situation and feeling that same anger, because we don’t know what he’s mad about. All we know is he looks really really angry.

So how could we rewrite this to show Mitch is really mad, and get our readers to feel the same anger. Well, one way would be to use an inner thought. I’m going to cheat a little too and use a physical cue, just to get things rolling.

Mitch clenched his fists. Enough was enough. Sally was just a kid, and no kid deserved to be beat to a bloody pulp…especially not by her own father. If that lazy, drunk scumbag wanted a fight, Mitch was more than happy to oblige.

By adding just a few inner thoughts, the reader is immersed in the scene. We see little Sally beaten to a bloody pulp at the hands of her drunk father, and now we’re mad too. What kind of a jerk beats up his own daughter?

You can see how the experience is totally different when we let the reader know why the character is so mad. Show the reason to the reader (rather than just the physical clenched fists and flashing eyes) and you get a much deeper emotional response.

Myth #2: To use “show don’t tell”, all you have to do is just keep adding a bunch of details.

The theory is, if you add enough details, then you are painting a scene for the reader and you will be showing them the action, rather than telling them.

Ok, there is maybe a kernel of truth to that. To be sure, “showing” often involves adding more details to paint a picture for the reader. However, those details must contribute to making the point you are trying to convey. If the details are just added fluff, then they aren’t doing anything other than slowing your pacing down.

Let’s take the example from the very first post in this series.

In this scene, Glenda has to choose a door – one leads to freedom, the other to a monster that will kill her.

Glenda’s hand wavered between the doorknobs. Sweat slicked her palms. Chose correctly and she would step out into the world a free woman. Chose wrong and she would end up like the others – and those bodies had to be identified using dental records. She swallowed dryly. Would the creature’s claws tear into the soft flesh of her stomach first or would those razor sharp fangs slice through her jugular? Oh God, please let this be the right door. She turned the knob.

In this example, all the details are describing a situation in which Glenda should feel fear and anxiety – her hands are sweaty and shaky, she is thinking about a creature tearing her guts out, and she’s praying she picks the right door. All of those details are there to help the reader feel Glenda’s fear and anxiety.

However, if we take the scene and add a bunch of extraneous details, it becomes much slower and less effective.

Glenda’s delicate hand – each finger encircled by a different colored ring – wavered between the doorknobs. One of the doorknobs was a dark read, one was purple and the last a deep blue, matching the color of Glenda’s eyes. Sweat slicked her palms, causing them to glisten like they were wrapped in cellophane. Chose correctly and she would step out into the corridor which she knew was painted with green arrows that would lead her to the exit door where she would be reunited with her mother, her dad, her best friend and of course her white, cuddly puppy Fu-Fu. Chose wrong and she would end up like the others….(ok ok, I give up, I just can’t keep writing this!)

So you get the idea. The second example has a ton of details and imagery, but most of it isn’t contributing to the point of the scene (i.e. evoking a sense of fear). Does it help the reader feel more fear because one of the doors is red? Or that there are rings on Glenda’s fingers? Or that her dog is white and cuddly and named Fu-Fu?

All of those things may help paint a very concrete picture of the scene, but they aren’t helping the reader get the feels. They are extraneous details and all they are really doing in this case is slowing the pacing down.

Adding details is great, but it’s important to evaluate each detail to see if it is contributing to the point of the scene. If the point of the scene is to show fear, or sadness or what a jerk the boyfriend is…then every detail should be contributing to that point.

Well, I think I’ve blathered on enough about my take on “show don’t tell.” If you managed to hang with me all the way to the end, then all I can say is “Thanks!”

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Especially if you have any of your own myths about “show don’t tell.”

All the best,
JD Burns




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