I often tell my students to “show, don’t tell”—and for good reason. Showing is how we can make scenes come alive. Telling is talking about something. Showing is putting the reader on scene. Joyce Rachelle says, “It's always easier to tell people that a character is funny rather than attempt to hit the punchline of a joke that character would've said.”
Let me give some examples of telling and showing:
My dog growled when the man approached the car, so I rolled up my window.
My American Eskimo balanced his front paws against the panel below the passenger door window. His back paws danced on my lap.
I laughed. “Quinn, your feet are hard on my legs.”
He wagged his tail at my words. His black nose quivered at the scents the breeze carried through the open window. A woman and two kids hurried past our parked car and Quinn wagged again. Same with a couple men going by on the sidewalk.
I glanced toward the store my husband had gone into.
Quinn stilled, and growled.
A man walked up to our window. “Hey, could you spare a couple bucks?”
Quinn growled again. Shaking my head, I rolled up my window.
So, what’s different between the two? The first is a summary. The second has sensory details, dialogue, and action. There are specifics. You know the kind of dog and that he is friendly. You know we were waiting in a parking lot with at least one store. You know I’m married and my husband is inside a store. You know why the man approached me. And look at the active verbs not used in the telling: balanced, danced, wagged, quivered, carried, hurried, glanced, stilled, walked.
Here’s another example.
We lost the cat in the hotel room, but finally found him.
After we showered and dressed, I put our black cat Salem in one carrier, while my husband looked for our white cat. In the previous hotel Toes had hidden under an easy chair.
“I don’t see him.” Don let the room-darkening drapes fall back against the window.
I lifted up the blanket and duvet on my side of the bed. “He’s not over here.”
“And he’s not behind the dresser, the TV, or in the bathroom.”
I frowned. “How could we have lost a cat in a hotel room?”
Don’s eyebrows drew together. “I have no idea.”
“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called.
Salem in his carrier meowed. But nothing from Toes.
Come on, I thought. We need to get on the road. “Could he be under the bed?” I asked.
Don shook his head. “No, it’s a solid platform. Maybe he got down behind it.” He pulled the mattress away from the wall. “Nope. No space.” Then he saw the small opening in the fabric of the platform. “Hand me my flashlight.”
I pulled the flashlight out of the outside pocket of our suitcase and gave it to him.
After shining light inside the platform box, Don said, “I can see him. Back in the far corner.”
“How on earth are we going to get him out?!”
Note in this example there’s some summary written at the beginning: “we showered and dressed.” Those are everyday things where the details aren’t important or necessary to this story and is “telling.” The cat being lost and how we found him is “shown.” It includes some thoughts. And hopefully it left you wondering, how did we get Toes out? The answer: Don picked up the platform and shook the cat down to the opening where I grabbed him! For fiction, I would raise the stakes by making it urgent we got the cat out.
Jerry Jenkins says, “When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.” What can a reader deduce from my second example? That I’m puzzled, and a bit frustrated. I didn’t need to say, “How on earth are we going to get him out?!” I asked with frustration. “With frustration” would be telling on top of showing. A reader can deduce my frustration about the lost cat. What about the first example? How did I feel about the man who approached my window? Wary, distrustful. I showed that by rolling up my window. I didn’t state it, but felt if my little dog didn’t like him, there was something wrong and so I moved to protect myself.
R. Michael Burns says, “Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing.” I still remember reading a scene from a book by Mary Stewart when I was a teen. The author’s description of a character’s meal that satisfied the character made me, the reader, hungry for that filet mignon. (Just like the juice from the steak in the above image makes my mouth water!)
I like this definition of telling: “it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.” – Emma Darwin
Use telling for summaries. E.g. The set up: Jay is a main character who was in a car accident. The reader experienced the accident with Jay. Now the man is home. He might open the conversation like this: “I’m afraid my pickup is totaled.” Jay told his wife what had happened. “Hearing” the details of the accident again would be boring for the reader. Some new aspects may be revealed in dialogue and reactions, and those are worth sharing. E.g. “I knew you shouldn’t have driven tonight.” LeAnne sighed.
Use telling for transitions. E.g. Four hours later, we stopped for lunch. OR He drove all day. A reader doesn’t need a blow by blow of driving on a freeway, hour after hour, where not much happens. Telling often has a time composite. Both of these examples do. It can be longer—days, weeks, months. Use telling in those places everyone wants to skip.
I’ll end with this quote about showing: “Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra
My husband read a recipe aloud because he found the above words in the ingredients list. It made us laugh. We assumed it should say “crushed Cajun nuts”—so crushed spicy nuts. But if it hadn’t been a recipe, would it really be funny? Recently I’ve become aware by several Facebook groups how some of the terms we use jokingly can be offensive to others. They include “nuts,” “crazy,” “psycho,” etc.
Robert Spencer said, “’Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships.” In his article, “Don’t Call Me Crazy,” he talked about how the definition should be changed. Read more here. And this article, “6 Reasons ‘Crazy’ Is Never A Thing You Should Call Someone – Regardless of Their Behavior” goes into more details why the word shouldn’t be used so casually.
Unfortunately, I found 12 instances of the word “crazy” in my novel published in 2016. Only one didn’t refer to what people were feeling, saying, thinking, or doing. Wow!
Language is always changing, and it is easy to resist change. But I think as writers we have a responsibility to consider making changes in what we write even when it is fiction. Even when it’s dialogue or thoughts of our characters.
Obviously, I doubt any writer is going to know all terms that are offensive to others, but if we don’t have open discussions, we won’t learn them. If you’d like to discuss this or other terms, feel free to do so in comments and I’ll reply.
Comparison can be great when looking to purchase a product, but how does it affect the creative life?
I read this on an independent comic creator’s blog: “Comparison can kill your spirit. The success of others does not equal your failure. When you’re making art that makes you happy, only you can declare your success or failure.” It’s the conclusion Michael Terracciano has reached, and oh, do I love that middle sentence.
Why is it so easy to compare? I wish I knew. We do it all the time in so many areas of our life—especially those where we’re unhappy or not completely satisfied.
But how does comparison help us? There’s always someone “better” or “worse,” so we may feel either depressed or good about ourselves. Neither position changes our work or our worth. Wait. Depression can change our work by us giving up and that’s not good for our sense of self-worth. Christy O'Shoney said, “Comparison is a terrible measuring stick.”
Fanny Flagg said, “Being a successful person is not necessarily defined by what you have achieved, but by what you have overcome.” Or the progress you’ve made.
Comparison of our previous work with our current work may be encouraging. I know I’ve looked back at older writing and thought, wow, I’ve learned a lot since then. Or, that needs editing, when before I thought it was “perfect.” As long as we don’t harp on “failures” of our past, but use them as touchstones to see how we are progressing, self-comparison can be helpful. David Schlosser agreed, “The only writer to whom you should compare yourself is the writer you were yesterday.”
William Blake said, “I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.” Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” I see this so much in my writing life—the more I write, the more I want to write. And the more I compare, the less I want to write, so yes, I’d say comparison is the enemy of creation.
If you’re not familiar with the Manuscript Wish List website or the Twitter hashtag #MSWL, and you are submitting manuscripts to editors or looking for agents, now might be the time to check into one or both of these.
First, some basics:
The website http://manuscriptwishlist.com is a searchable site to discover what agents and editors are looking for. It also tells you a bit about the person, and provides submission information, or a link to submission information. New agents and editors are featured.
The hashtag on Twitter is a chance for editors and agents to tweet specifically what they are looking for. You may favorite or retweet these, but DO NOT use the hashtag yourself to pitch. The next #MSWL Day Is Wednesday, September 12th. On that day you can search for the hashtag #MSWL and watch what these professionals are posting. It doesn’t mean they aren’t posted on other days—this will just be a special focus day. Oh, and because posting with this hashtag is so easy, it may be more up-to-date than the site.
The easiest way to explain both of these is to show not tell. J
The website. I used their search box and entered “inspirational romance.” Eight names popped up. Let’s look at a few. First up is an agent, followed by an editor.
Elizabeth Poteet, The Seymour Agency. Her submission guidelines say: “We are looking for all sub-genres of romance, 25k-100k words. All books should end in a happily ever after or a happily for now (if the characters are continuing in a series.) For heat level and other helpful information please see the individual category guidelines at smpswerve.com.” There’s also a section on recent acquisitions.
Shana Asaro, Harlequin/Love Inspired. She says, “I am actively seeking category-length inspirational (Christian) romance for Harlequin's Love Inspired (contemporary romance) and Love Inspired Suspense (romantic suspense) series lines.” There are lists of what she’d like to see in submissions and what she’d not like to see. She also has some recent books acquired and edited by her, plus fun facts, and, of course, submission guidelines.
Just as information shared varies on these two pages, no two entries will be exactly alike. Pages usually include a picture. If you know a professional’s name, you can use the search box to see if she participates. Of course, do research on anyone you are interested in submitting to.
The hashtag. A recent search of the #MSWL gave me several interesting posts. First, from a few agents:
Lynnette Novak @Lynnette_Novak Sep 4
I’d love to see more adult fantasy and cozy mysteries in my box. Send ‘em over! Paste query and 1st 5 pages in body of email. Querylynnette (at) theseymouragency (dot) com. #MSWL
Naomi Davis @NaomisLitPix Aug 28
#MSWL - REALLY looking for diverse adult fantasy! Show me worlds inspired by cultures I have not yet explored through fantasy, show me main characters w/ unorthodox fantasy roles who may usually be considered "side" roles, show me older protags & established relationships!
And here’s one from a publisher:
Bienvenue Press @BienvenuePress 19 hours ago
Bienvenue Press is currently looking for #submissions for its Hometown Heroes Christmas anthology. Click the link for details. #amquerying #amwriting #books #MSWL https://bit.ly/2JbbIm1
You can see by these three examples that the specificity varies. Always do research on any editor, agent, or publisher. People have scammed #MSWL.
If you have other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
Yesterday I went to a Donald Maass (literary agent) event on “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.” I really enjoyed it and learned some new craft tools to apply to my work. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, I strongly recommend going. (There’s also a book of that same title by Donald.) His website is here and to read specifically about Donald and where he is speaking, go here. Obviously I can’t share the whole session, but wanted to share a small portion.
What really struck me is the six elements our openings need to include. Some were familiar, and some were presented in a way new to me. Here they are:
Donald illuminated these ideas with sample passages from several books and one unpublished manuscript. I’m going to briefly show these elements with my own example from a recent book I’ve read, Katherine Reay’s The Austen Escape. Feel free to “look inside” at the first section before reading my analysis.
The mood – frustration
Story questions – What is Mary’s project? What is her relationship with Nathan? Is she in love with him and he doesn’t know? Why is he so helpful? Why does Mary not get along with Karen?
Life or death – death. The project is dead.
Language/style - contemporary
Need/urgency – Mary needs to move on.
Strength – Yes, she is determined to get over her “illusions.”
All that in just a little over 200 words. Does it make you want to read on? It definitely did so for me. And nothing really is happening. It’s only a conversation. But I was hooked.
For me the most difficult question to answer in Donald’s examples was language/style. I could see it when he pointed out that one text had a Biblical style, almost a sermon. Another was ironic. I think I need more practice. ;-)
We can analyze the openings of our own manuscripts by using these elements. Or ask our critique group or beta readers to answer these questions for us. If their answers aren’t what we expect, that may be okay. But if the answers are not where we wanted the opening to take them, it’s back to the keyboard.
When I travel I like to take “light” fiction with me. By that I mean ones that don’t make me think too hard. I like to download them to my kindle app on my iPad, so I’m also not carrying extra physical weight.
The first one started out so well—set in Africa, viewpoint of a baby rhino, then switched to the people. I loved what the people were doing—saving at-risk animals. But there were sections where something would be shown and then it would be followed up with an unnecessary telling sentence. I don’t want to give an example from the book directly, so I’ll make one up:
Showing: Dark clouds scrolled across the sky and Lydia shivered in the sudden wind. Before she could reach the porch, rain stung her bare arms. A flash of lightening flared, immediately followed by a boom of thunder. Lydia ran up the steps and under cover, but she was already soaked.
Telling: It was a terrific storm.
D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining.” (Italics mine.)
The next book. After an intense scene in the viewpoint of the child who is the main character, we hung around too long. She was only four. I remember a few powerful happenings from when I was very young, but not a lot of detail. The excessive detailed memories of a four-year-old made me lose my suspension of disbelief. It needs to be logical or we need to be provided with reasons why it is logical. I really like this post by Dr. Vicki Hinze on “Suspending Disbelief” where she discusses how to do it in your writing.
Later I was in disbelief again when the main character, now a teen, blamed herself for her older brother drowning in the pond. She felt it was her fault because she went off to do something else. Foreshadowing suggested it could have been suicide, but the character never thought anything about that possibility, ever, which would have validated the drowning and her feelings of guilt. I felt as if I’d been lied to. In Anton Chekhov’s famous book of writing advice, he says, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Note: I bought both of these books. I was trying new-to-me authors, and unfortunately they won't be new favorite authors.
So, my reading choices weren’t the most successful, but someone this week recommended the Netflix movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and I loved it! Here’s a link to the trailer. I since discovered it was based on a book, so that’s my next reading choice.
What are you reading and learning from?
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.