Do You Really Know How To Show, Don’t Tell?

Let me preface this post by saying, I found this generator that rates post titles. Which is why this title seems a bit cocky. It rated high and I’m using it as a test. For those of you who are new to my site and don’t know me, I assure you I do not think I’m better than anyone. This is only a test to see if higher rated titles really drive more traffic. Stay tuned for a post on this if it works. If it doesn’t…crickets.

guilty-puppy

Yesterday marked my deadline for completing the pre-edits for Marred. “Pre-edits” seems like it would be an easy task. It wasn’t. Once the track edits begin in two weeks I’m not allowed to change anything other than what the editor points out. So I wanted to go through the manuscript…one…more…time…and improve it to the best of my ability. I went word-by-word, line-by-line, scene-by-scene…and checked scene structure, MRUs, and overall suspense, chose stronger verbs, deleted filler, etc. etc. And I learned something about myself. I am a perfectionist who is never happy until I’ve ripped everything apart, drove myself crazy, pulled out half my hair, beaten myself into exhaustion, and then rebuilt. Now, I’m satisfied…for two weeks…until the cycle begins again.

Is this a flaw? I think so, but it also drives me to improve.

In the pre-edits I looked for writing tics and things that dragged down the writing and/or slowed the pacing. The phrase “Show, Don’t Tell” is some of the oldest and most misunderstood advice in the industry. Show, Don’t Tell does not only mean to show a character’s action instead of naming an emotion; it goes way deeper than that.

When you write in Deep POV, like so many books today, even your narrative must Show, Don’t Tell. It should read as though the character is speaking rather than author intrusion. Years ago, books used an omniscient narrator, but today readers expect more. It is at the editing stage where you can amp your writing to the next level by concentrating on these changes.

Telling words are:

S/he thought

Mused

Wondered

Guessed

Hoped

Realized

Wished

Watched…

These words pull the reader out of the story. Think about it. We don’t think, “I wondered if the windshield could stop a bullet.” Or, “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley alone.” We just think it. As such, our stories need to reflect that.

Instead of the first example “I wondered” we need to write “When I saw the gun I ducked under the dash. Could the glass stop a bullet?”

See how more immediate it sounds? The reader remains in the story.

Let’s take the second example. Which is one of my writing tics by the way.

Instead of: “I wished I hadn’t gone down this dark alley.”

Try: “If only I traveled my regular route home.”

Instead of: “She realized he was a creep.”

Try: “Creep.”

We are in the character’s head. Cut the fluff.

Phrases like Seemed to, Tried to, Began to…are also telling phrases. I once read a blog post where the author was ranting about characters “trying to” do things, and he rambled on and on about “Why is everyone only trying? Just do it already!” The post, comical as it was, always stuck with me. The author also happens to be correct. We can’t have our characters “trying” to do something. They do it.

While editing, I was amazed by how many times I used “tried to” or “started to”. For me, this took time to master.

For instance, in Marred I have a section of scene where the deputy sheriff, Frankie Campanelli, shoves the sheriff while he’s rising from the sofa. My first instinct was to write, “As he started to rise she shoved him back down.” There are several things wrong with this sentence, but let’s concentrate on the action. I rewrote the sentence as “He rose halfway and Frankie shoved him onto the sofa.” Less words, more immediate.

We all have our tics. Lord knows I have many. The trick is acknowledging what they are so we correct them during editing. Preferably before you submit to publishers and/or agents. I never was one to do things the “right way”, but I’m paying for it now. Now, I have a ticking clock. Whereas before I could move at my own pace. This becomes even more important if you decide to go the self-publishing route, because once you push that publish button your book is out there. Well, I shouldn’t say “more important”. You could save yourself headaches from reading rejection letters if you tighten your writing before you submit, but that is an entirely different post.

Here’s a writing tic that always cracks me up: “His eyes shot to her little black book. Was that man’s number in there?”

Body parts cannot move independently from the rest of the body. While working with my critique partner we used to laugh about this all the time. It’s easy to write this way in a first draft. Reading the above sentence makes me envision eyeballs shooting across the room and landing on a little black book. Unless you’re writing science fiction where the protagonist is a lovely robot like Lisa, my friend Craig Boyack’s creation, body parts need someone to move them.

Instead of: “His eyes shot across the room.”

Try: “His gaze shot across the room.”

Instead of: “Her arm raised and she waved.”

Try: “She waved.”

Which brings me to…

Double action

When someone waves they obviously have their hand “raised”. Same with “reach”.

Instead of: “He reached out and grabbed the candle.”

Try: “He grabbed the candle.”

Better: “He swiped the candle.”

“Grabbed” is so overused. Always better to find a specific action that paints a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind. “Swiped” shows us he moved quickly like he didn’t want to be seen.

Sensory tells

She heard

Felt

Touched

Smelled

Saw

Tasted

Instead of “She heard a van outside her house and froze.”

Try: “A van rumbled outside her window. She froze.”

Instead of: “She saw a dark-haired man slip through the back gate and into the yard.”

Try: “A dark-haired man slipped between the gates, into the backyard.”

Less is more.

Instead of: “She tasted his blood on her tongue and gagged.”

Try: “She gagged, choking on his blood.”

It may not seem like a big deal to use a few telling words, but it is. After you make these changes, read through your manuscript start to finish and you’ll see a marked improvement in your writing.

Honestly, I have never been more proud of my work. Marred is the best story I’ve ever written and I can hardly wait to share it with the world. I’ll let you in on a little secret…a birdie told me that the pre-release price will be 99 cents. If you want a copy of Marred, for yourself or as gift for someone else, take advantage of the sale because a few days after release it goes to full price. Not that it will break your piggy bank even then, but why not get it for a rock-bottom price? The pre-release sale begins the middle of September. I’ll post an announcement when it becomes available.

I should have a cover to show you soon. Hopefully in time for my next post. Until then, happy writing. I’m off to tear apart Timber Point to get it ready for submission. The work never stops, but it’s so much fun!

Have a wonderful week! I’m hoping to catch up on social media over these two weeks too. Why aren’t there more hours in the day? That was rhetorical. My real question to you is this…do you have any tips to share? If you’re a reader, what pulls you out of a story?

Looking for a way to commit murder? Sign up for your FREE copy of 50 Ways To Murder Your Fictional Characters.

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42 thoughts on “Do You Really Know How To Show, Don’t Tell?

  1. I think that’s fewer words not less words. Are italics still used to indicate thoughts? If not, why not as it seems an unambiguous way to signal the reader with out supurfalous words. Language usually evolves toward more effective expression and I haven’t heard good arguments for abandoning this convention. Have you?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Italics is used, but sparingly. If we used italics for every thought for our deep POV character, 3/4 of the book would be in italics. To answer your question about using more effective expression…you’re absolutely correct. We should not only use fewer words but the “best” words. However, that does not mean using a twenty-five cent word when a common word will do. These aren’t my rules. I’m sharing what I’ve learned through working with my editor. Stephen King is a big proponent of using the most effective common word, and if it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s good enough for me. Have a wonderful day, Steve.

      I should add, the only time we use italics is when the tense changes. For instance: I ambled to the corner store. When will they fix this sidewalk?

      Like

  2. Great post, Sue, and you know, that’s what I’m also trying to do with my WIP. The double action is a special headache of mine, I’m slicing out lots of double actions. Also lots of ‘directions’ as a friend called them (he turned and… he stood and… he looked that way… you know, this kind of stuff).
    Then, the normal stuff: then, and, but. Agh…

    This is my very first time polishing up a novel. It’s a completely differenet experience from anythign I’ve ever done before.

    I’ll keep your post in mind while polishing 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know exactly what you mean, Sarah. You do reach a point, at least I did, where it becomes fun. Not the first time through, though. That’s a nightmare. I’m now tearing apart another ms to get ready for submission, and I’m pulling my hair out!

      Like

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