Chrissey’s Writing Tips #2

Posted by Chrissey - 26th September 2011

Last time I looked at the stylistic choices of tense and perspective. Once you’ve decided on these basics, the next job is to get the events of the story down on the page. Now the subject starts to get really complicated, so I’m going to start with the biggest and most important point.
 

GETTING THE POINT ACROSS – Showing and Telling

There are many books on the craft of writing, but almost all of them will, at some point, talk about the subject of showing vs telling. Showing the important parts of your story rather than telling them is at the core of successful, immersive writing. So, let’s take a look at the fundamentals.
 

SCENES VS NARRATIVE SUMMARY

One of the hardest things in writing is getting the balance right between simply telling your reader what happens (narrative summary) and showing them the events as they happen (scene).

Narrative summary has its place, but one place it certainly does not belong is your opening paragraph. Always try to open with a scene to ensure you hook your reader and draw them into the story. I’m going to do an article on openings at a later date.

Narrative summary can be used to quickly convey unimportant details, perhaps to show time passing or cover an incidental piece of action that, while not important to the plot, is important to the flow of the story telling. To cut a long story short, everything that is important to the story should be shown through scenes.

Here’s a quick example of the difference:

Narrative summary:

Marie walked into the bar and confronted Jason about his affair. He tried to explain but she would have none of it.

Scene:

Marie stormed into the bar. “Who is she? Some tramp from work or what?”

Jason took one look at her flushed cheeks and burning eyes and shrank back.

“No it’s not like that, there’s no‒”

“Don’t lie to me, I saw the texts. I saw you with her the other night.”

“Look, whatever you think you saw you’re wrong, she’s just a friend.”

Marie thumped her fist on the bar. “I know what I saw!”

She spun on her heel and marched towards the door. Jason scrambled round the bar and took off after her.

The second version is longer, granted, but it is more visual and more engaging for the reader. We get a wealth more information from seeing their conversation than we do being told about it. Narrative summary is often utilitarian and cold. By showing the action in a scene, you can convey emotion and expresses the tension between the characters in a way that inspires the reader to care about what happens next.

A useful exercise is to read through a piece of writing, either your own or someone else’s for comparison, and try to identify what is shown as scenes, what is told as narrative summary, and what the balance is between the two.
 

YOU DON’T NEED TO EXPLAIN YOURSELF

On a smaller scale, showing and telling can be equated to demonstrating and explaining. In a good piece of writing, you hope that your demonstration is so good that you don’t need to explain it at all.

You explain yourself when you do the following:

  1. state a characters feelings
  2. describe upcoming events before they happen
  3. use verbs and adverbs in your dialogue tags or actions that explain the emotion behind what was said or done.
  4. reflect deeply on events that have just happened
  5. and just generally state the obvious

Time for another example. Let’s go back to Marie and Jason in the bar again, extend it out a little and see how each of those numbered points above looks in context:

Version A:

“Stay there, I’m coming over,” Marie said over the phone then hung up.

Jason was worried. (1) She had sounded very upset on the phone and he wondered if she suspected something (4). If she confronted him about it he would just tell her the truth; that Zoe was a friend and needed his help. (2)

Some ten minutes later Marie stormed into the bar. “Who is she? Some tramp from work or what?” she accused. (3)

Jason took one look at her flushed cheeks and burning eyes and shrank back. She was angry and she knew something, but what? (5)

“No it’s not like that, there’s no‒”

“Don’t lie to me, I saw the texts. I saw you with her the other night,” she interrupted (3)

“Look, whatever you think you saw you’re wrong, she’s just a friend,” he replied (3)

Marie thumped her fist on the bar, angrily (3). “I know what I saw!”

She spun on her heel and marched towards the door. Jason panicked that he wouldn’t see her again if he let her leave, (1) so he scrambled round the bar and took off after her.

“Marie, wait. Listen to me. Her name’s Zoe, and she really is just a friend. She’s been having some trouble with this guy and she needed some help, that’s all.”

In many cases the best thing to do with all that explanation is just cut it out. Highlight, delete, sorted. But, if you think that leaves things a little too vague or lacking in detail, you might want to convey your point another way, for example by adding in a little bit of body language or less direct interior monologue. Sometimes simply rewording a line can help.

Version B:

“Stay there, I’m coming over,” Marie said over the phone then hung up.

Jason worried at his thumb nail, considering what she might have seen or heard. It played on his mind for some ten minutes until Marie stormed into the bar.

“Who is she? Some tramp from work or what?”

Jason took one look at her flushed cheeks and burning eyes and shrank back.

“No it’s not like that, there’s no‒”

“Don’t lie to me, I saw the texts. I saw you with her the other night.”

“Look, whatever you think you saw you’re wrong, she’s just a friend.”

Marie thumped her fist on the bar. “I know what I saw!”

She spun on her heel and marched towards the door. Jason’s heart leapt into his throat and he scrambled round the bar and took off after her.

“Marie, wait. Listen to me. Her name’s Zoe, and she really is just a friend. She’s been having some trouble with this guy and she needed some help, that’s all.”

But what’s wrong with explaining? Doesn’t that make sure the reader understands what I am trying to say? Consider you are watching a movie and during the middle of an intense action scene the directors voice is suddenly heard explaining the character’s thoughts and emotions. Wouldn’t that completely throw you out of the experience? Well it’s the same with writing.

There are a number of drawbacks to over explaining yourself:

  • You run the risk of insulting the reader’s intelligence. If a character thumps their fist on a bar the reader does not need you to tell them that the character is angry.
  • Explanatory interior monologues can start to make character’s seem stupid, naïve, neurotic or simply unbelievable.
  • If you start explaining yourself the reader will start to notice you explaining yourself, and if they notice you then they aren’t immersed in the story.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the first and most important point – the writer should be invisible; they should act only as an invisible bridge between the reader and the story. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but those thousand words can paint many pictures if used well.

 

Your feedback is most welcome. Let me know if you find these articles helpful, if you’ve got any of your own advice to add, or if you have a suggestion for a future topic.