Show or Tell: How Do You Know?

As we discussed last week, it’s okay to tell at times, but in fiction you want to show the important, emotion-laden scenes. That way the reader gets the vicarious experience along with the character. So how do you know when you’re telling rather than showing? Here are a few tips:

Beware the dreaded –ly adverbs.

“Get out of my novel, you –ly adverbs!” Alice said angrily.

Ah-ah-ah! Any time you use an –ly adverb (angrily, happily, stupidly, etc), you’re telling us what the emotion is rather than showing it. Instead, show the emotion, whatever it may be, through actions or punctuation. In the example above, the exclamation point tells us Alice is being vehement, but it’s not clear if she’s angry or frightened.

Alice stared at the page of her novel, her blood pressuring rising. Thirty-two! Thirty-two –ly adverbs on one page! What was wrong with her? “Auughh!” Her cry still echoing around her, she grabbed the page, crumpled it into a compact ball, and pitched it, as hard as she could, against the wall.

One excellent resource for showing, as well as for other elements of quality fiction, is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King (Writers’ Digest Books). If you don’t have a copy of this book on your shelf, get it today! Self-Editing recommends cutting virtually every –ly adverb one you write. It’s surprisingly easy to do so. Just use your search-and-replace function, searching for ly with the different punctuation marks after it (ly. ly, ly? ly!) and ly with a space after it. You can get rid of most, if not all, of them in no time. Replace them with a beat or just drop them.

R.U.E.: Resist the Urge to Explain

Another thing to watch for is author intrusion, which happens when you give us emotion and with, in, of, etc. (e.g., she screamed in frustration). Too often we write great descriptions, then give the reader a recap, just in case they missed the point. Not only is that telling, it’s underestimating your reader. Far better, though, to let your characters’ words and actions stand on their own. Consider the following:

  • Alice leaned forward eagerly. “I think he’s a spy!”
  • When the kitten fell off the chair, Bob laughed in an amused way.
  • Jean’s forehead creased in confusion.
  • Dan threw the book at her with an angry toss.

Where is the explaining there? Right! Eagerly, in an amused way, in confusion, with an angry toss. All of those are telling, and all are unnecessary. When you come across an explanation, cut it. If the emotion is still shown and clear, the telling wasn’t needed. If it isn’t shown, then rewrite to show without explaining. So…

  • Alice leaned forward. “I think he’s a spy!”

Leaning forward implies eagerness, so this works just by cutting the -ly adverb.

  • When the kitten fell off the chair, Bob laughed.

Okay, yes, Bob has a warped sense of humor. But we can see that just fine without the editorial of in an amused way. What’s that? Laughter isn’t always amused? True enough. Sometimes it’s wry, or angry, or sarcastic. That brings up a point to consider with showing: word choices. How about if we used another word like chuckled or chortled or giggled or laughed ’til his sides hurt. One of the keys to showing well is choosing the right words to convey the exact emotion.

  • Jean’s forehead creased.

Again, the action communicates the confusion, but if you want to be sure it’s clear that she’s confused, you could add a question from Jean to show her confusion.

  • Dan threw the book at her.

Here, too, the action shows anger. One doesn’t generally throw things at people if they’re happy. (At least, I hope not!) If you want to spice it up a bit, you could show the impact when the book hits something, or use a word like heaved, or add a muttered oath…etc.

One last word on showing: Don’t fall into clichés. If your character is angry, don’t tell us he’s “mad as a hornet.” Find a way to make the old new again by putting your own spin on it. For example, I had the dubious honor of poking a hornets’ nest when I was a kid. Yeah, what can I say, I had more chutzpah than brains. So I could rewrite the cliché as “mad as a hive-poked hornet” or “mad as a mass of hornets whose hive was just poked.”

So give it a try! Write a few lines that show one or two of the following emotions. And feel free to post your examples. And have fun!

  • Happiness
  • Joy
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Danger
  • Revenge
  • Comfort
  • Depression
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The Care and Feeding of … WORDS!

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.”
Pearl Strachan

“By words the mind is winged.”

“The turn of a sentence has decided the fate of many a friendship, and, for aught that we know, the fate of many a kingdom.”
Jeremy Bentham

Amazing, isn’t it? Something so small as words can have such huge impact.

The right word in any circumstance can bring peace, comfort, laughter, tears. It can elicit emotion, stir action, deliver forgiveness, change lives. For generations, words have moved and motivated. Writers, steeped in the wonder of words, have poured their hearts out on stark paper, only to have those pages come to life in ways they never imagined, and to have their words live on in the hearts and minds of readers long after they’ve been read.

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The Wave of Digital Creativity in Books

I went to high school in Hawaii (I know.. a rough life) where I learned the joys and perils of body surfing. That experience is a great metaphor for the new “waves” of digital revolution we are seeing in the publishing world.

The key to great body surfing is waiting for the right wave and then time your push just right. The ride is exhilarating (I still remember riding inside the tube of a perfect wave off the beaches of Kauai). BUT if you catch the wrong wave or mistime the push, there is no ride. Or worse, catch a wave that throws you wildly into a bunch of rocks…

But unless you are in the water and making attempt after attempt you will never achieve the perfect ride.

I see this metaphor applied to the new world of digital publishing. It is really fun to play a small part, but even more fun to watch others be extremely creative in their experiments. There are some very bright and exciting people trying new things in merging the traditional book with all things “interactive.”

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