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Show, Don't Tell How to Identify Telling

Show, Don’t Tell: How to Identify Telling

Last week I discussed one of the major writing rules, Show, Don’t Tell, where I looked at what telling is, why it’s bad … and when you need to use it. But how do you identify telling in your manuscript?

Today I’m going to share my top tips for identifying and removing telling , based on the most common telling errors I see in the manuscripts I assess and edit. They are:

  • Telling through Dialogue
  • Telling through Internal Monologue
  • Telling Tags
  • Telling the Emotion

Telling through Dialogue

Dialogue is usually considered showing, because it’s a form of action. But dialogue can be telling.

Characters will sometimes tell each other things they already know, as a way of informing readers of something the author thinks they need to know. This could be two police officers discussing the appropriate procedures for collecting evidence, or two medical professionals discussing the best way to draw blood, or how to calculate the correct dose of medicine. This may look like showing, because it’s dialogue, but it’s not. It’s telling, because there is no plot or character reason for those characters to have that conversation.

The only reason for the conversation is to get information across to the reader. That’s not good writing.

The best (worst?) example of this is Coming Home by Karen Kingsbury. In it, the married couples got for long walks and remind each other how they met (which might be acceptable if there had been a mass outbreak of amnesia). If you’ve never read one of the 20+ Baxter Family novels, Coming Home provides lots of useful catch-up on a large cast of characters. But if you have read the novels, it’s unnecessary telling.

We all know someone who retells the same stories over and over at family parties … and we avoid that person. Unless your character is that person, or has some kind of mental health problem, avoid having them repeat the same information over and over. It doesn’t ring as true to the reader.

Ask yourself: would real-life people have this conversation?

If a conversation is the only way you can get vital facts or backstory across to the reader, consider introducing a third character who reasonably wouldn’t know the information, but needs to know. If educating that character is the focus of the scene, it is more likely to be showing than telling.

Telling Through Internal Monologue

If you’re writing in deep point of view (and I hope you are), then all the narrative should be filtered through the viewpoint character. We should see what she sees, hear what she hears, touch what she touches, smell what she smells, taste what she tastes … and know what she thinks. It’s great to read a novel when an author really gets inside a character’s head and the reader effectively becomes that character.

It’s less great when the ongoing action of the story is disrupted by long passages of internal monologue.

This is usually the character reacting to what has been said or done. The internal monologue might be fascinating, but if a line of dialogue shows up in the middle of a long passage of internal monologue and I, the reader, have to turn back three pages to work out what the dialogue is responding to … then the internal monologue has switched from showing us the viewpoint character’s state of mind to telling us her every thought.

Ask yourself: has your internal monologue turned into telling?

If you’re writing an action scene, sprinkle the internal monologue throughout the scene rather than dumping it all at once. A word here, a sentence there, perhaps even a paragraph while she waits for the kettle to boil … but no more than a paragraph. Otherwise you run the risk of turning your internal monologue into telling.

Telling Tags

One common way authors tell where they should be showing is through dialogue, and dialogue tags. Newbie authors often add adverbs to their dialogue tags which explain the dialogue—in effect, telling what the dialogue should be showing:

“Attention!” the sergeant barked.

Dogs bark. Not people. People shout. (The exception might be if your sergeant is actually a weredog or werewolf. They might bark.)

“I don’t want to go to school,” Johnny grumbled.

We’ve all heard (and perhaps even said) those words. We all know that tone. The dialogue shows us Johnny is unhappy. There’s no need to use the dialogue to tell us as well. It’s unnecessary repetition. Browne and King say:

If your dialogue doesn’t need the props, putting the props in will make it seem weak even when it isn’t.

“I’m sorry,” Beth said apologetically.

Yes, I’ve seen that in a manuscript. As you can probably tell, the adverb is unnecessary (and telling) because the reader has already figured Beth is sorry from the dialogue (a form of showing). Browne and King say:

Ly adverbs almost always catch the writer in the act of explaining dialogue—smuggling emotions into speaker attributions that belong in the dialogue itself.

Ask yourself: are you explaining your dialogue with telling tags or adverbs?

Telling the Emotion

Authors often tell the emotion. It’s easy to spot:

  • Beth felt tired.
  • Beth was sorry.
  • Beth wanted to run away and hide.

Felt, was, were, wanted, had, thought, wondered, knew, looked, gazed, heard … these are all telling words. They are telling us what the character is thinking or doing, rather than showing us.

Instead of telling, show the action or show the emotion. How do we show?

  • Show Beth’s facial expression. Does she look as though she’s about to cry, or about to punch someone? What does that look like?
  • Show Beth’s body language. If Beth is truly sorry, she’s likely to be slumped over with her head down. If she’s defiant, she’s likely to be standing tall, perhaps with her arms crossed.
  • Describe Beth’s voice—the tone, pitch, volume, or rate at which she speaks.
  • Use an action beat instead of a dialogue tag, to show what Beth is doing.

Ask yourself: are you using telling words?

I hope this gives you some practical tips on how to show, not tell. For more detailed advice, I recommend:

What tips do you have on showing, not telling?

Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings is another of those oft-quoted pieces of writing advice. It’s sometimes quoted as murder your darlings, but never fear. No actual killing or murdering is required.

No, the saying relates to the revision and editing process. It refers to the need for us to revise or delete (kill) any word, any sentence, any paragraph, any scene that doesn’t add to the point of our writing.

What Are Your Darlings?

These are called darlings because they are often the part we like best as the writer—the interesting word, the original turn of phrase, the scene that makes us laugh (or cry) and confirms we can actually do this thing. We can write. We are writers.

This could be because our darling doesn’t move the plot forward, or because it reveals too much information too soon. It could be because it doesn’t aid in characterisation, or because it is inconsistent with the character as he or she has been established. Or it could be because it takes readers off on an unnecessary tangent, like the time …

Sometimes these are our favourite parts, hence killing our darlings.

But killing your darlings isn’t a bad thing. Done properly, it makes your story better.

Why Do Your Darlings Have to Die?

In non-fiction, you have to kill your darlings because you need to keep your readers on track. You are making a point, and every word, every sentence, every paragraph needs to reinforce your argument. Yes, you can tell stories in non-fiction. But they must relate to your central point. For example, I could add in a couple of paragraphs over the origin of the phrase, Kill Your Darlings, with an in-depth examination of who reportedly said it first. That might be interesting, but it doesn’t add to the central point of this post.

Fiction is similar—we need to keep ourselves and our readers on track. There is an assumption in fiction that everything is important. This is the principle of Chekov’s gun:

If there is a rifle on the mantelpiece in the first act, it needs to be fired in the third act.

(I could now go down any number of rabbit holes expanding on whether it’s a gun, a riffle, a pistol or a sidearm, but again … kill those darlings.)

In fiction, each scene needs to move your plot forward and deepen characterisation. Any scene that doesn’t needs to be strengthened, or cut. Even though you spent hours writing it. Kill those darlings. Take the information the reader needs and sliver it into the plot. Ignore the rest, or turn it into a short story or something else that can be downloaded from your website as a gift to email subscribers.

How to Find and Kill Your Darlings

I’ve found killing my darlings isn’t the hard part. The hard part is identifying them in the first place. Some are easy to find and easy to kill. Others are much harder. Three darlings that need a swift death are:

  • Weasel words
  • Wasted words
  • Writerly words

Weasel Words

Most authors have weasel words—words like just, quite, really, that, or very—which don’t add to the writing. Other overused words include smile and shrug and nod. It’s not that they are bad words. It’s that they are overused to the point they become boring and predictable. And who wants their writing to be boring and predictable?

Kill those darlings.

Wasted Words

Some words are wasted words—words that don’t add anything to the story or deepen characterisation. At best, these are just words. At worst, they are sentences or paragraphs or scenes. Sometimes these wasted words are examples of repetition, where we’ve said the same thing more than once. Where two or three different images are used to give the same effect. Where we’ve repeated ourselves.

Like in that paragraph.

It’s not fun to read. So use the strongest image, and delete the others. Sol Stein has a formula: 1+1= ½ . It means the more different images you use to show something, the weaker the overall writing.

Here’s an example, taken from Stein on Writing:

He had time to think, time to become an old man in aspic, in sculptured soap, quaint and white.

I like the image of an old man in aspic. It’s original, and it gives the impression of someone who is so old they are almost preserved. But the image of soap detracts from the first image. The author also explains the soap image: quaint and white. Stein points out that we usually think of soap as white unless a colour is stated, so that’s redundant. And since when was soap ‘quaint’?

Kill those darlings.

Writerly Words

Fictional darlings can include words or phrases that you like, but that don’t add to the story. Sometimes they are what Margie Lawson calls writerly words. Words that don’t sound natural for your character or story. Words that sound like a writer wrote them. These are often the hardest darlings to kill, because they are the words we struggled to find. But just because we searched three thesauruses (thesauri?) to find the right word doesn’t mean it’s the right word for our character.

Kill those darlings.

But How Do I Find Them?

The best way to find your darlings is to put your manuscript aside for as long as possible so that when you read it again, you read it with fresh eyes. This means you’re better able to look at it as a reader, and more likely to pick up mistakes … and darlings. The longer the manuscript, the longer the time needed between writing and editing.

You may have darlings that serve a purpose—moving the plot forward, deepening characterisation, or both. Great. They can live. But cut what you can. Everything you cut is something your editor doesn’t have to cut for you, which means your editing fees will be lower.

Kill those darlings. Your editor with thank you.

Best of the Blogs: 1 April 2017

No, not an April Fool (although you might wonder if you watch the YouTube videos on Change Blindness below).

Writing

Narelle Atkins visits Australasian Christian Writers to challenge us to make writing a Lifelong Learning Process … and shares the news that Margie Lawson will be speaking at the 2017 Omega Writer’s Conference in Sydney, in October.

If you’re in Australia or New Zealand, this is a fabulous opportunity to hear from one of the best writing instructors I know of. Are you planning to attend any writing conferences this year? Which one?

Tina Radcliffe at Seekerville shares the best-ever explanation of GMC, The Why of Motivation. It’s all about ice cream, people.

Editing

Seven tips to tighten your writing from writing coach Lisa Tener, and a video shared by editor Joan Dempsey that illustrates why none of us can edit our own writing:

Did you spot the change? What about this one?

These two videos illustrate one of the problems of editing our own work: we see what we thought we wrote or what we meant to write … not what we actually wrote. Even worse, we don’t notice obvious errors if we’re not looking for them.

This is why we need to make multiple passes through your manuscript when editing. If you read through the manuscript looking for point of view violations, you’ll find them. But you’ll probably miss all but the most obvious spelling and grammar errors—and vice versa.

It’s fascinating to know there’s actually a name for it: Change Blindness.

Social Media Marketing

Rachelle Gardner at Books & Such Literary Agency shares on managing Your Social Media Persona. Basically, balancing being authentic with not coming across as a self-promoting whiner. This should be obvious, but I’ve seen two instances of online whining today so I guess it’s not as obvious as I thought.

Note: poor-me whining is not the same ascommenting about the world-news weather system that’s closing schools and threatening your home. That’s being real, and my thoughts are with the people of Queensland as they deal with the aftermath of ex-tropical cyclone Debbie.

Inspiration

It’s time to turn your question marks into exclamation points. No, the editor hasn’t gone mad. (Although I will admit I clicked in this blog post because of the intriguing title). Kaye Dacus explains in Writing with Exclamation Points Instead of Question Marks.

Best of the Blogs: 23 September 2016

www.christianediting.co.nzThe best posts I’ve read this week on reading, writing, editing and marketing:

Reading

I don’t understand the popularity of Amish fiction, perhaps because I’m not American. But as this article from Debbi Gusti at Seekerville shows, not even the authors can explain why Amish fiction is so successful: Amish Fiction? What’s the draw?

Can you enlighten me?

Writing

Dave King is one of the best when it comes to offering writing advice (If you haven’t read and memorised Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, you should). This week at Writer Unboxed, he talks about where our characters come from and how that affects their world view: Give Your Characters Roots

Editing

Margie Lawson always offers great advice. This week she’s visiting Writers in the Storm to talk about a better way to add character backstory: by using rhetorical devices (anyone who knows Margie knows how much she loves her rhetorical devices): Margie’s Rule #17: Finessing Backstory

Marketing

MailChimp (the email provider I use) have recently introduced segments, which allow users to email only a select portion of their mailing list. All is explained in this blog post: Pre-Built Segmentation: Target Your Customers with One Click

Fun

And finally, for a bit of fun, I have one of my own posts. If you’re a Kiwi, you’ll have heard of L&P. If not, let me introduce you to L&P: World Famous in New Zealand.

 

What’s the best blog post you’ve read this week? Share in the comments.