Saturday, April 23, 2011

4 Simple Ways to Kick the Telling Habit

I received and email from Annie Oortman on 4 Simple Ways to Kick the Telling Habit:

Don’t say the Old Lady screamed… bring her on and let her scream.—Mark Twain.

“Show, don’t tell.” That adage has struck fear in many a writer’s heart. But turning “telling” into “showing” is easy if you’re willing to take a critical look at your prose and perform a bit of rewriting.

1. Get Rid of Filters

The easiest way to kick the telling habit is to find filters in your writing. They’re dull phrases of unnecessary realization: He saw, she heard, Sandy realized, Joe noticed, Henry thought, she felt, they listened, he looked, she observed, they anticipated, etc. Stopping to think in the middle of action is like stopping to scratch or blow our noses. Not something your reader needs to be a part of.

He thought of himself as a strong-willed person. (telling)
He was strong-willed. (showing)

She believed Joe had cheated on her. (telling)
Joe had cheated on her. (showing)

The policeman looked like he didn’t believe me. (telling)
The policeman didn’t believe me. (showing)

2. Say Bye-Bye to Expletives

Expletives are it is/was, it has been, there is/was/were, and there has been sentence starters, and they’re so-o-o-o-o telling because (1) their vagueness hurts your ability to show your story and (2) they put emotional distance between the character and the reader.

It was true he was a strong-willed person. (telling)
He was strong-willed. (showing)

It seemed Joe had cheated on her. (telling)
Joe had cheated on her. (showing)

It was pretty evident the policeman didn’t believe me. (telling)
The policemen didn’t believe me. (showing)

3. Eliminate Dialog Tags

Dialog tags are the he saids, she saids that identify a speaker and are telling at its worst. If you’ve written dialog well, you need only an occasional reminder to the reader of who is speaking. You also don’t need to sneak movement or major information into a dialog tag. Make the movement or other information a separate sentence.

“Hi, Joan,” Helen said, her grocery cart coming to rest by a row of fresh produce.
“Hi, yourself,” Joan said, turning to see her old friend.
“What do you plan to do this weekend?” Helen asked, forcing a smile.
“Tom and I are going out on the boat Saturday,” Joan responded in a strained voice.
“Oh, well, if you’re interested, Brad and I are having a cook-out Saturday night about seven,” Helen said with a shrug.
“We’ll see,” Joan laughed nervously. “Thanks.”

Be careful about –ly adverbs like nervously—they tell, too. This conversation doesn’t even make clear whose POV we’re in.

“Hi, Joan.”
A grocery cart bumped into the display of red and yellow peppers. Joan turned to see an old friend her husband didn’t care for.
“Hi yourself!” Joan picked up a pepper rolling on the floor and returned it to the display.
“Have any plans for the weekend?”
“Tom and I are taking the boat out Saturday.”
“Oh, sure.” A shrug. “Well, Brad and I are having friends for a cook-out Saturday night about seven. If you’re interested.”
“We’ll see.” Joan started moving down the aisle. “Thanks.” She couldn’t look back.

4. Eliminate Passive Voice (as much as possible)

Passive voice (a form of “to be” + past participle… was broken, had been eaten, was explained) is one of the most common ways of telling. Writing in passive voice tells the action, which weakens the conflict you’re illustrating.

Miranda was told her husband had been seen with a neighbor lady several times. (telling)

Took a minute for Miranda to absorb the truth. Her husband spent a lot of time with the chick who lived down the street. A lot. She put her coffee down and headed for the work shed. She‘d kill the jerk. (showing)

The crevasse was being skied over by men desperate to avoid the avalanche. (telling)
Desperate to avoid the avalanche, the men skied over the crevasse. (showing)

Brady was tormented by memories of the accident. (telling)
Memories of the accident tormented Brady. (showing)

1 comment:

  1. And I thought show vs. tell was a new concept to bring our stories live like TV. But, hey, if Mark Twain said so...

    Thanks, Lori, for posting these steps to showing. We all know how much better showing can make a story.