Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Showing and Telling and Feeling

I get the impression from all the many writing books out there that most people have the opposite problem here, but in case you are like me and getting this kind of feedback, I'm going to post a few things I've learned here about showing, telling, and making feelings clear in a book.

Show, don't tell. That's what you've always heard, right? And it's true. Put your reader in the action. Don't tell about it after the fact. Don't jump us five minutes later, even. Let the scene unfold in real time as the reader gets to it. Give us sensory impressions--how it smells like long-forgotten lunches in front of the lockers, how it sounds when the goodbyes of kids with friends slam against the metal of the locker doors. How small and clear and sharp the pupil of the bully's eye is as he looms over Our Hero. Show.


You have to tell, too. Just a little bit. You have to give us Our Hero's reaction. That can come in internal reflection (owie kazowie!!), in watching him gasp, in his dialogue, OR in setting up his reaction and/or fears of that very thing BEFOREHAND, so that when the worst happens, we know, we KNOW what it means for him. It needs to be personal--not just the obvious fact that someone hitting you hurts. The blows can feel like payback for every time Our Hero let someone down. Or maybe as he lies there on the floor, he can worry about not being able to meet the cute girl who finally started talking to him when and where he promised. Whatever it is, you've got to have a reaction, and it should be as specific to your character as psosible. It is not enough to leave it all to the reader. The reader might form an opinion, but you have to let them know how close their opinion is to the character's.

I think sometimes we are overly influenced by the screen. In movies, we aren't inside a character's head. All we have to go on is what we read from the outside. If an actor shows us expressions we associate with certain feelings, then we make an interpretation. And writers do this--we describe our character's external, physical reactions. But movies have visual camera shots, they have color (or not), they have great, swelling music and drums and SFX. Writing doesn't. We are both trying to get to the same thing in the end--that gut emotion--but we use different media, and have to use different ways to get there. The inside of your character's head is the most important place because it's what gives all the action of your story meaning. Don't leave it out!

When you do this kind of telling, you let the reader into the mind and heart of your character. That means you let your reader feel. Since I believe in fiction, anyway, (as opposed to a nonfiction manual on air compressors), the most important thing about strong writing is to make your reader feel, this is the key point for your book, no matter what it's about.


Leandra Wallace said...

A very helpful post on the dreaded 'show vs tell' topic! Thanks!

Leandra Wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leandra Wallace said...

Oops, sorry, I posted the same comment twice and so I deleted it. *blushes*

Rose Green said...

Glad it was helpful! :)