Here it is, the scariest sentence in all of fiction publishing:
I’m going to need more showing and less telling.
I’m sure if you’ve ever submitted to an editor, agent, or contest at some point you’ve heard “I need you to show me what is happening here, not tell me about it” or some variation of. And I’m betting at times you just want to scream “what the crap are you talking about!?”
We’ve all been there.
At some point, every author wonders how in the heck they are supposed to show what their character is feeling. I mean, isn’t the very objective of writing a book to tell a story? Of course it is, but the reason a person has chosen to read that story as opposed to watching a movie, or going for a walk—is because they want to be fully immersed in the story itself. That full immersion, the baptism of story, is the reason people always says things like “The movie was good, but the book was so much better.” You can only watch a movie, but you can experience a story.
Being a part of and feeling everything the character does, the visceral experience, is showing.
For example, in my most recent work in progress titled Swamp Witch my original opening started something like this:
The feeling of foreboding was so intense, that her skin crawled and her throat constricted. Never had Teagan Blackwater been frozen with fear before. Now, standing before the quaint white double-wide trailer, with its wood stained front porch and black imitation shutters, she couldn’t move a muscle.
While it’s not bad, this certainly isn’t painting a vivid picture for me (or you). In our rush to convey the scene playing out in our own minds, we often tell what is happening. Literally, I tell the reader that there is a feeling of foreboding. That’s why they call it a first draft. In revisions, it’s time for us to tug our readers in, immerse them in the scene so that it plays out in their minds just as vividly as it has for the writer.
This is that same opening, after a revision to make it more show, less tell:
An intense foreboding made her skin crawl and her throat constrict. Never had Teagan Blackwater been frozen with fear. But, standing before the ordinary, white double-wide trailer, with its wood stained front porch and black imitation shutters, she couldn’t move a muscle.
Here, I don’t tell you there is an intense feeling of foreboding. Instead, I describe that feeling as if I am Teagen experiencing it herself with her skin crawling and her throat constricting. Showing now instead of telling.
Now, here’s an even easier trick, that might help a bit.
There are a litany of red flag words that herald a telling portion of your manuscript. But the one that drives me batty is—heard. Pair that with a “to be” verb and a named emotion and well—that’s not a visceral image, is it?
Delilah heard the door slam and was afraid.
We know Delilah heard the door slam without being told because she is our point of view character. We should be experiencing what she is experiencing without being told she is hearing it or that she is afraid. But when writing our first drafts, red flag words like heard, felt, saw—are placeholders until revisions. Everyone uses them, the fun comes in revising them into a bigger show.
Heard is easy to change into showing:
The door slammed shut with a reverberating bang and Delilah was afraid.
Was is a little more difficult, especially in third person. We need to show that Delilah was afraid without saying it. Show don’t tell:
The door slammed shut with a reverberating bang. Delilah froze, a painful cold prickling across her skin. She held her breath, not daring to move a muscle.
Now we’re showing her fear, without telling the reader she’s afraid.
Simple, right? And with practice, it gets easier. Of course, there will be places throughout the manuscript where a tell is necessary to move the story forward. And that’s okay, so long as whenever possible you are immersing your reader in what your character is experiencing.
Check out Leslie’s upcoming class right here at SavvyAuthors!
And check out Leslie’s latest release:
Two Hearts, One Stone
Horse trainer Stone Dempsey’s life is all about the ride—with horses and women. He uses his equine talents to impress the country club set and earn money for Smoky Mountain Reining Horses. When his drug-addicted sister d
eposits her sick babyon his doorstep, he’s suddenly saddled with real responsibility.
Dr. Emmersyn Cole’s goal of starting a practice in her favorite place on earth is finally coming to fruition and she is not going to be sidetracked. Everything is going great until Stone swaggers into her life, half-dressed with a smile that could melt her insides. She’s determined to keep her distance…until he rushes into her grandfather’s home, clutching a feverish baby, terrified and vulnerable, and her heart’s hard shell begins to crack.
In only a few short weeks, Stone’s wayward heart suddenly relies on two women—one who needs him—and one that he might not be able to live without.
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