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Show and tell

Show the readers everything, tell them nothing. ― Ernest Hemingway

Writers are frequently admonished to show not tell, but what does that mean exactly? I’m no master yet, but Mary Buckham’s recent Body Language and Emotion class has helped a lot.

(Seriously, if you get the chance to take anything she teaches, spend the money.)

Think of the movies. The best actors are those who can convey their thoughts and emotions without saying a word. In a well-written book, the characters do the same thing.

In my own work, I have whole scenes where the characters talk and move around the imaginary space, but the scenes feel like they move too fast. They're flat and lacking emotion.

I don’t want over-the-top drama, and there are times when it makes sense to just “tell” and move on, but part of the reader’s experience is the vicarious emotion of the characters. If we don’t give them that, they won’t come back for more. To get them involved, we not only need to tell them what the characters are doing, but more importantly, show how the characters are doing it.

Here’s an example of telling:

Jenny gave him a nervous glance. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin didn’t believe her. He could always tell when she lied.

The passage above gets the point across, but I’m telling you what kind of look she gave him, telling you that he didn’t believe her, and telling you why. Wouldn’t it be stronger and more interesting if I showed you what each character was feeling and let you name the emotions yourself?

Here’s my effort to rewrite with nonverbal cues to show you what’s going on:

Jenny met his gaze briefly, then dropped her focus to the woolen rug near her feet. She tucked an arm across her stomach and smoothed her skirt repeatedly with her palm. “I didn’t take it.”

Gavin snorted and shook his head. She gave her away her lie with every move.

That could probably use an editor’s red pen, but still, I think the second passage is richer. It involves the reader more. I didn’t name a single emotion, but I’ll bet you figured them out anyway.

Next time your hero crosses a room, show the reader how he does it. Instead of merely walking he could stomp, stalk, or skip even. Don’t let the heroine hold a letter in her hand just to break up a paragraph of dialogue. Have her fold it into careful pleats, squeeze it in her fist, shred it, or clasp it to her chest.

Combine those actions with a few other telling, er, showing moves and your story will come to life.

We have to move our characters around their world—what Mary Buckham calls choreography—so why not make those moves mean something?

Image credit: Kuroda Seiki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Passive aggressive: the grammar post

Before I launch into a grammar diatribe, I have to announce that I passed the halfway point in my current WIP! [Insert happy dance here! :-D]

Okay, back to the blog… The confusion over passive voice, the use of “was” and -“ing”, and the definition of showing versus telling has been bothering me for a while now. Yes, I'm a bit of a grammar nerd. (Though far from perfect!)

I believe a poor understanding of English is insidious when incorrect information is perpetuated by course instructors, critique partners, and contest judges. Authors fear every word they put on paper, frantically seeking new ways to strike “was” from their MS, and deathly afraid of telling us their character “feels” an emotion, rather than showing us through action.

So I was ecstatic to read author Amy Corwin's excellent (with references!) explanation of common grammar myths and show versus tell. If you're one of the confused, check it out.

Another excellent resource for all things grammar, is Grammar Girl. She has a website, and free podcasts on iTunes. On the website, you can subscribe to daily tips via email, or just search the site for the answer to your burning grammar question.

If you prefer a book, there are several good ones out there (I only linked to Amazon for your convenience, not because I'll get any money if you buy).

There are, of course, many others. Ask your friends. Most importantly, be in the know. Don't let uninformed writers scare you with incorrect information.

By all means, get aggressive at eradicating passive voice from your MS. But be sure you understand what it is first.

The Daily Squirrel: coffee

The aroma of freshly brewed coffee couldn't lift Jill's spirits as she rode the elevator up, every jarring ding taking her one floor closer to a day of cubicle-contained hell.

A year ago, she couldn't believe her luck when Mark Alder had chosen her to take over the team of programmers. But only months later, Mark quit and Dean Barlow moved in. Dean rode the team hard, giving them impossible deadlines, and never acknowledging the hard work her team put in to meet them. As the team leader, she was stuck in the middle, taking flak from both sides.

Her blood pressure spiked as she stepped off the elevator onto plush, gray carpet, but she vowed not to let Dean get to her. Today was the day she'd push back.

One of the programmers stopped her in the lobby, ready to burst with shocking news. She wouldn't need to push back today or ever, because someone else had pushed Dean…right off the roof.