Critique: 8 Quick Tips for Show, Don’t Tell by K.M. Weiland - Usa

Mis à jour : 30 août 2019


The key to immersive story experiences is convincing readers they’re right there with characters. They’re smelling the ash in the air, tasting the rain, feeling the churning gut, seeing all the same colors, hearing all the same notes. When narrative writing accomplishes that level of verisimilitude, it has the ability to move readers beyond their comfy reading chairs, beyond even the movie projectors in their heads, and right into a deeply visceral experience.

When done well, we call this technique “show, don’t tell.” This is actually an umbrella term for hundreds of little tricks that all combine to create strong narrative writing. If you master show, don’t tell, you will have largely mastered narrative writing itself.

This is why show, don’t tell is such a popular, pervasive, and challenging topic for all writers. It’s usually one of the first techniques we stumble over when we get serious about our writing, and it’s one we continue to tweak with every book we write.

I’ve written about the topic before—both about the basics and about more advanced approaches. Today, however, I want to use our ongoing series of “excerpt analyses” to explore several specific ways you can knit showing into the fabric of your story.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the third in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have shared with me. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Gary Myers for sharing the following excerpt from his historical novel Vaderland. Let’s take a look (the bolded entries and superscript numbers will correspond with the tips I’ll talk about in subsequent sections):

The young woman deftly unclipped the limit chain and moved it aside, immediately regretting not being more careful 1 as the metal sign suspended below it clanged loudly against the rail.

2Swiftly,3 she lifted the hems of her skirts, took the first step up the steep stairs, and spun around to reattach the chain. One hand on the rail, the other pulling her skirts aside so she could see the narrow steps, she rose 4quickly to the deck above.

Hurried along by a stiff and steady wind angling down from the North Sea, the frigid December air immediately buffeted her as she emerged onto the port side of the open Boat Deck.5 How foolish, she thought, not to have thought of that. To not have realized how sheltered the Promenade Deck below had been.6Outside, of course, but, at least on the starboard side where she had started, protected by the main deck house from the full force of the icy wind that blew from the northwest. Barely checked by the low marshlands in the estuary of the River Scheldt in northern Belgium, and totally unimpeded for the last thousand feet as it swept across the river itself, it slammed into her slight figure just as forcefully as it did into the new and untested steel-plated hull of the twin screw steamer Vaderland.

She resisted the urge to wrap her arms about her and rub her shoulders to warm herself. It was painfully obvious that a crisply starched shirtwaist was unsuitable for these conditions; returning to her cabin to don the grey wool jacket and cape that matched her skirt would be the prudent course of action. But Liza Dodson could withstand the memory of cold and discomfort more readily than that of not having been up to the task. That was unacceptable, and as unthinkable to her as smiling sweetly and acting helpless of body and thoughtless of mind.

It wasn’t that she was unable or hadn’t learned her lessons. As a child she’d discovered that even a face described as “pleasant enough” and dull blond hair that hung limply around it would usually be sufficient to get her way if she smiled and cocked her head just so. By the time she’d escaped awkward teenage years, she’d discovered the same of a figure judged only “more than passable,” even with her midriff stayed, her back forced into a graceful arch and her posture thus corrected. Had she chosen to behave as expected, she was fully capable of employing both face and figure to the desired effect, as most would willingly do. But she was not most and would not—could not—tolerate behavior that indicated she was less than she was. And what she could not tolerate in herself she suffered poorly in others, men and women alike.7

Ignoring the wind and the cold, she set about her task8 and found it no challenge at all, or at least not what she’d expected. She’d thought it would be difficult to find the object of her quest amidst the clutter of the Boat Deck.

Not intended for access by the passengers, as the metal sign on the limit chain had politely but sternly informed and instructed, it was clearly designed with little thought toward easy navigation, rendering it unsuitable for casual foot traffic as well. The port row of lifeboats hung from their davits, looming over her and crowding her from the right, while to her left towered the bridge and the two tall black funnels with the broad white stripes indicating the ship belonged to the Red Star Line. On center-line with the funnels, she could make out the low skylights for the dining rooms and saloons, surrounded by an assortment of fan housings, pumps, winches and water tanks. Ducts, pipes and steel cables of all sizes crisscrossed the deck at her feet; more cables, stays for the funnels and masts, zigged and zagged through the air at a variety of angles in front of her. Trumpet-shaped vents of all sizes littered the landscape, their flared openings bent at right angles to cylindrical bases that disappeared into the deck.

The description in the final paragraph is an excellent example of showing. Through well-chosen details, we are allowed to see what the protagonist sees. The ship comes to life before our eyes.

The earlier paragraphs, on the other hand, provide us an opportunity to look at ways we can all strengthen the force of our narrative writing (especially in the beginning of a story) by avoiding several sneaky instances of telling.

8 Tips to Spot Telling and Strengthen Showing

One of the reasons show, don’t tell is so difficult to master is that it is first of all difficult to understand. What exactly is showing? Most of the time, authors in search of this elusive skill will rightfully start out striving to use strong action verbs and write vibrant descriptions (as Gary did in his final paragraph). But there’s more to show, don’t tell than just that. Today, I want to point out several examples that aren’t always at the top of show, don’t tell guideline lists, but which are vital to strong narrative writing.

1. Never Name an Emotion

In the first sentence, the unnamed POV character “immediately regret[s] not being more careful.” This is perhaps the sneakiest of all bits of telling—and also one of the most potentially damaging. If we do our jobs right as writers, we should never need to directly tell readers what our characters are feeling. Rather, their emotion—joy, sorrow, confusion, regret—should emanate from the powerful context we have created.

Initially, this one can be a head-scratcher. How else would you let readers know a character is experiencing regret? Sometimes, admittedly, there is no other way. But usually, if you take a moment to consider how someone would act—facial expressions, body language, physiological reactions, thoughts, language, etc.—in a specific situation, you can show readers the appropriate emotion. Perhaps the character immediately flinches, bites her lip, and looks around to see if anyone noticed.

If you want to read more, I give you on the website: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com

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