Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.
I'm guessing that every single fiction writer at some point in his or her journey has been told, "You're telling too much and you need to show instead."
Okay...so...what does that mean? Can you tell that a character smiled, or do you have to show it? (The corners of Piper's mouth raised until her mouth formed the shape of a crescent moon...) Can you say that a character poured herself a glass of milk, or do you have to show it? (Piper reached her hand to the door knob and pulled the cabinet door toward her. Then she selected a glass and placed it on the counter...)
It's confusing, right? Just to offer a bit of comfort, showing rather than telling is one of the last big concepts to click for most writers. (The other is using point of view correctly.) So if you're struggling with showing, and if you're consistently struggling with showing, you're far from alone.
Resist telling emotions.
When you hear industry professionals talk about showing rather than talking, predominately they're talking about emotions rather than action.
"Piper poured herself a glass of milk" is a fine thing to say in a book.
"Piper felt angry as she poured herself a glass of milk" is not.
I challenge you to run a search in your manuscript for the word felt because it's almost always used for telling something that you could be showing. Another red flag word is thought:
"Piper thought about Mariano and felt angry while she poured herself a glass of milk."
Why do we naturally tell instead of showing?
Well, for one thing, it's easier. It's how we handle stories that we tell our friends in real life ("I was feeling so bummed out, so I went to get ice cream...") so we're programmed to do it.
But I think the biggest reason is that we want the reader to be perfectly clear on why the character is doing everything they are. That's why we constantly have to fight our desire to explain everything our character is doing.
I listened to an incredible class on this topic by Jeff Gerke where he said what you'll sacrifice in clarity, you'll make up for in reader interest. While we don't want our reader completely confused, we do want them to feel intrigued by what the character is doing. And part of that is not explaining every detail.
Think of your book as a movie or a stage play.
In the Jeff Gerke class I listened to (which I wish I could link to, but I listened to it from one of my conference CDs) his advice to know if you're telling or not is to ask yourself, "Could an audience see it if this were a movie or a play?" If not, you've likely crossed into telling.
Of course a novel is a different art form than screenplays, and there's definitely a need for internal monologue, so don't go ripping it all out of your manuscript. But do keep an eye out for when you're using internal monologue for sneaky telling.
You'll notice that lots of classics are full of telling. Those were written for a different audience—an audience who hadn't been brought up on a steady diet of movies and TV shows. The modern reader is accustomed to having their stories shown to them, and while they'll have patience with Jane Austen, they likely won't extend the same patience to you.
Let's go back to Piper and her glass of milk. Put her on stage—how can we show that she's angry and thinking of Mariano while she pours the milk? She could be grinding her teeth. She could pour the milk with a bit too much gusto, and when it sloshes out of the glass she mutters, "Mariano," as if it's all his fault.
There are lots of ways to show it, and all of them are far more interesting than "Piper felt angry."
Is description telling?
Using the Jeff Gerke trick, no. Because it's something the audience can see. You're not telling, you're showing the audience where the character is. Much like decorating a stage.
Is dialogue ever telling?
YES. When your character is saying some solely for the benefit of the audience, you've crossed into telling. My personal pet peeve is dialogue that looks like this:
Guy: How long have we known each other, dear?
Gal: Why, ten years, of course.
Guy: And that's why I'm giving you this 10-carat diamond.
I hear versions of that way too often on shows and in books, minus the ridiculous size of the diamond. Character A should never tell Character B something that Character A knows Character B already knows. (I rewrote that sentence approximately a dozen times to try and make it more clear, and I'm not sure I achieved it! Don't let characters say things they know other characters know.)
Sometimes writers work way too hard to inform the reader: "Well, Jim, we sure missed you last night at the game but I'm sure you had a lot of fun at your niece's concert." You can still work in that information, but you can find a much more natural way to do it:
Guy: Hey, Jim. We missed you at the game last night.
Jim: I would've much rather been with you guys, trust me. A kindergarten concert isn't exactly my idea of a good time.
Guy: It's nice that you went. I'm sure your niece appreciated it.
Are action tags telling?
Can you say that a character laughed or a character smiled? Yes. If you can see it through a camera (or pick it up with a microphone) then it's showing. You don't need to get all fancy with character's mouths becoming crescent moons or anything.
Is it ever okay to tell?
Yes. And we'll discuss that next Monday!