Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader--not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." E.L. Doctorow
Show Not Tell

It’s a daunting task to train one’s self to the mindset of showing versus telling, at least for me. But one day last week I looked at a sentence and I knew. I clicked to the fact the sentence did not provide the reader with an opportunity to feel or experience the event for herself. And I figure if I spontaneously recognized the problem once, the chances of it happening again are good.

Maybe going through the first three chapters and highlighting all those passive verbs paid off. I rewrote and reworked sentences in an effort to create a more active experience for the reader. I did pardon a few of those offending verbs and adverbs, probably too many, but I’ll get to them. Another valuable writing exercise might be to skim each page and note how often I used the five senses and in what spots I can make more use out of the four I’ve surely neglected. Hearing, touch, taste and smell are valuable tools in creating vivid imagery.

Movies are prime examples of how to show emotion. I read an interesting idea once which suggested watching your favorite movie for facial expressions, actions, gestures, etc. and recording them. I decided to give it a try. I pulled out my Pride and Prejudice DVD (the Keira Knightly version), loaded it in the machine and prepared to dissect Mr. Darcy’s and Miss Elizabeth Bennett’s every flutter, flinch, or frown. In retrospect, I spent a very enjoyable afternoon watching one of my favorite movies. I just forgot to record any observations. Darn, I’ll have to watch it again.

I’ve learned dialogue is key in show, don’t tell. The Pledge - I will not overstate or be verbose and I will not use it to reveal unnecessary and boring back story. I will appreciate the simple elegance of the word “said” in dialogue tags. I want my reader to feel involved not sleepy or uncomfortable.

Of course, as in life, balance is required. It is not possible to show everything; sometimes telling is the shortest distance between two points.

Does the 80/20 rule apply to show, don’t tell? Do you have a favorite author you admire for their show, don’t tell technique? Have you watched a movie to study how they show emotion?


Janet said...

Hey, Karen.

Great post - and after my week of editing, one I can relate to! I have a hard time with the ratio of show versus tell - there's no formula out there to say how much of a novel should be showing and how much telling. I guess you go with your instinct, and whether it sounds right in your manuscript.

Speaking of Pride and Prejudice (that version) - when Mr. Darcy assists her into the carriage, you see his hand and he opens and closes his fist. Oooh, like her touch has burned right into his skin. I love that scene - so small, subtle, but powerful. Now, I have to pull out the DVD and watch it tonight.

Good luck with the rest of your editing.


Karen said...

Thanks, Janet. I know the scene you mean. He's drawn to her and has no idea what to do about her. Good luck right back at you.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
'Show don't tell' is one of most important things a writer can learn and if you think you're starting to get the hang of it, you're on your way.

I love the quote you use. You can tell your reader it's raining but if you can make them feel it, you've done your job as a writer. We're in the business of evoking emotion in our readers. The novels I love most are the ones that make me feel the most.


Suse said...

Hi Karen,

You've made a lot of good suggestions about how to show not tell. I think sometimes when a person has been writing for a while, she forgets about checking for these things. It helps that you remind us what we can do to improve our writing.

I also think watching a movie is an excellent way to add texture and emotion to our stories. Thank you for that suggestion. I'll have to make sure though that I don't get caught up in the story too, and forget to record the characters' actions.

You are obviously working very hard on your editing. I'm sure you'll be happy with the results.

Karen said...

Hi Jana,
I love quotes. I read this one and the blog kinda followed.

Hey Suse,
I am happy with the editing and I feel like I'm learning something valuable.

I'm taking the time everyday to write, blog or learn and I can feel my confidence level building.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Karen, great post. I find I've really been noticing the impact of dialogue alone lately, reading a lot of drama. Few stage directions, but there are verbal queues enough to let you know what's going on. It's made me notice a lot of little points that don't need to be prefixed by actions saying exactly the same thing.

Working with your example of Pride and Prejudice, I love how in both writing and film, so many little nuances come across during what isn't said by the narrator, and the glimpses of expressions on film that show a character's feelings even while they remain superficially polite.

Karen said...

Hi Hayley,
I love to write dialogue but I sometimes struggle with the appropriate 'little nuances' to accompany it. I'm going to have to pull out my P&P DVD and try again.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, if you can believe, I finally watched P&P a couple weeks ago when they showed it in conjunction with the 'Lost in Austin' mini-series. Until then, I didn't know what all the hoopla was about. And I must say, now I know and understand.

As for watching a movie to show emotion - when the SRW met for the fall retreat in 2007, someone brought the DVD 'Sweetland' for exactly that reason. The heroine doesn't speak English and yet she's a mailorder bride, so to speak. I was so impressed with the movie, I ordered it from Amazon and watch it frequently when I'm trying to convey emotion in my characters.

And, you may laugh, but I watch the TV show The Bachelor for the same reason. You know which girl is really into him if you watch her whole body language, hand and head movements as well as what she says.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, seems as soon as I read your question, I go ahead and answer it...

I really liked your post. I don't go by any 80/20 rule. I try to include the reader into every aspect of my story. However, there are times when I can't find the words or for pacing, that I will tell. I guess that's my 20%. :-)

Thanks for the good reminder.

Karen said...

Anita, I'm not a fan of The Bachelor so I never thought of it in that light but I bet you're right. There are probably hundreds of visual clues in each episode. Good idea! My goal is to try and be more conscious of body language.