Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another View of 'Show, Don't Tell'

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

Recently, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) monthly member meeting in Bellevue. The guest speaker was local book doctor Jason Black (, who gave an excellent presentation on the topic "Show, Don't Tell" Demystified.

He began his presentation by explaining that showing versus telling is a contrast between the meaningful and the mundane. It is acceptable, even necessary, to tell the things that are mundane in your story. For example, you can tell that your characters are meeting for dinner, because that is a mundane detail. You can tell where the characters are after a scene change - they're standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel. You can tell that a character turned on a lamp. But, for those things in a scene that are meaningful, it is better to try to show it. For example, instead of saying "Hubert felt affection for her", you would have Hubert come close and give her a tender hug.

Jason said that showing is the process of manifesting the invisible. The show should cause the reader to draw an inference from it, rather than telling the reader what to conclude. As an example, he displayed a photo of two smiling women at some sort of public event. What can be inferred from the photo? Their teeth were white and straight, thus they may come from an affluent background. They were leaning close, so they must be friends. People in the background wore identical plastic bracelets, so they may be at some paid event. In our written scenes, can we get the reader to draw an inference from what we show? Think about this scene:

Hubert's eyes followed the curvy woman as she sashayed across the restaurant. His wife griped her knife, white knuckled, and stabbed into her steak.

Is Hubert a philanderer? Is their marriage already on the rocks? Will the wife murder him in his sleep? Is the other woman a hooker?

When to show? To cause an inference, to draw attention, to evoke a feeling.

When to tell? At a scene break, jumps in time (i.e. "Three days later ."), to summarize mundane events ("They drove into town").

Jason gave these general steps for adding shows to your scenes during the editing process:
  1. Figure out the meaningful invisible facts in the scene. For example, A hates B, C fears dogs, D drinks too much. These are things you could tell the reader, but they have an invisible quality from the other characters' point of view, versus a lamp or a blue dress, which are obvious and visible.
  2. Find the moments in the scene where these invisible facts come into play.
  3. Determine the visible consequences/manifestations of the invisible facts. A always sneers at B, C cowers when dog approaches, D staggers with drink in hand.
  4. Write down these visible manifestations (the show).
    Other examples of tells:
    • Information dumps and backstory.
    • Some dialog tags, other than said and asked.
    • Adverbs, which tell a manner of action. Better to use stronger verbs.
    • Exclamation points in narration!
    Other things that show:
    • Dialog.
    • Inner monologue (i.e. POV character's first-person thoughts).

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Book Review: Stein On Writing

    Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

    Stein On Writing book imageI recently finished reading Sol Stein’s book Stein On Writing. Its chapters are divided into seven sections, allowing the reader to zero in on the subjects he/she cares most about. Stein’s writing is straightforward and the chapters are peppered with excellent examples, both good and bad.

    I concentrated most on the Fiction section, where each chapter presents different concepts and techniques, such as Plotting, Characterization, Suspense, Tension, Dialog, and Point of View.

    I especially liked two of the chapters.

    A) The Crucible: A Key to Successful Plotting. This is the situation that binds the characters together even as things go terribly wrong. What is it that keeps them together until the end, rather than running away? It can be something like a marriage, a blood relationship, a closed physical location, a business, a competition, etc. The crucible can exist for one or more scenes, or may define the whole novel. When used, it can breed plenty of character conflict and be a device for the character to grow or change.

    B) The Adrenaline Pump: Creating Tension. The chapter starts with the great notion that “Writers are troublemakers”. Rather than seeking to relieve stress, we wish to give our readers the sense of more stress and pressure, like stretching a rubber band. He makes the point that, once the author creates the tension, he/she shouldn’t let go too quickly; let the stress linger - drag it out as long as possible. The tension can come from a single chilling sentence, or by setting up a stressful situation, such as a ticking clock to an ominous deadline.

    Stein’s book should be a valuable reference I can refer to again and again to get my novelist’s juices flowing anytime my writing feels stale.