Monday, March 21, 2016

Readers just won't be told!

Right, so don't get all huffy and storm off in a strop, have a paddy or throw your dummy out the pram. This rule was made eons ago and has recently gained crazy momentum for a reason. And no, it's not to ruin  your writing, or make it sound like everyone else's, or suck out all the fun, or hinder your natural voice. Goodness no. This rule does the opposite when used to its maximum. Exploit the 'show, don't tell' rule and your characters will come alive, your talent will explode on the page, your action will be vivid and your voice addictive. It's true.

I am sure you are SICK of hearing it, but I'm sorry, guys, it's still one of the biggest issues I see in manuscripts I'm given to edit. It's a freaking epidemic. I know, I know. You're telling a story, but 'telling' in this sentence doesn't need to be taken literally. Think of your writing as entertaining your audience, creating a movie reel in their heads, creating images and evoking emotions through your cleverly constructed sentences and precise wording. Not simply relaying what happened one word at a time. Oh no, you want more. Much more. You want to pick up your reader and plonk them in this story: hurt them in fight scenes, reduce them to tears in sad scenes, scare the heebie-jeebies out of them in frightening ones. Let them be the characters. Let them feel, hear, smell, touch. Clench their fists, grit their teeth, suppress tears, and eyeball the shadowed corners of the room.

I'll admit, it is very possible the writing world has gone a little 'show, don't tell' mental, but in this case, we're actually talking about a picnic that seriously needs this sandwich. (Stick with me...) Good books do more than tell stories, as good sandwiches do more than satisfy hunger. But it's OK sometimes to tell, it truly is. But sometimes means rarely, as little as you possibly can. Perhaps in those scenes that are fast and furious dabbling with elaborate phrasing isn't needed because you've just got to get that action across before it's too late. Fine. No one is going to tell you off. Absolutely not. But if you do this on every page, in every sentence and every scene, then your reader's likely to switch off, or literally do this...  

So, are you telling me, or are you showing me? T = Telling and S = Showing


T: Home was a big town called Tonbridge and the roads were red and the sky was purple.

S: Billy stood staring out at the vastness of Tonbridge. His birth place. Home. Red bricked roads twisted amongst metallic skyscrapers, the swirling purple clouds reflected in the tops.


T: Billy was excited because he'd arrived and was going to meet his parents for the first time.

S: Billy sucked in a long, calming breath. He was here. At last. He smiled, unable to fight his emotions any longer. Somewhere, amongst the skyscrapers, were his parents. Mum and Dad. And he was finally going to meet them.

With Filter Verbs

T: Billy could hear water, which appeared to be coming from around the corner. He decided to investigate.

S: Billy paused, listening. A gentle trickling of water. But where? He focused, homing in on the sound. To his right, just through the trees. But it couldn't be, could it? Real water? He jumped down from the mound and crept closer.


T: Billy was an angry guy who found it hard to forgive.

S: Billy gritted his teeth and snarled at all the smiling faces ahead of him. Stupid happy families. He didn't need parents, not like these fools. And besides, istwasn't him who'd walked out all those year ago.

With Adverbs

T: Billy quickly ran to his parents, and excitedly hugged them.

S: Billy sprinted across the park and, unable to hold back his emotions any longer, threw his arms around his parents and squeezed.

There are other ways I often see writers telling instead of showing – info-dumping and conveniently passing on info through dialogue, for example – but these five examples are the most common. And if you work on these techniques, practise, research, read, learn, then your writing will immediately take a more professional turn. Just try it before you refuse to follow the 'show, don't tell' crowd –because I hear and see your reluctance – and if you still think your writing was better before, then I wish you all the best.