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.
A week ago I posted on how to show your story rather than tell it. The trick we learned—courtesy of Jeff Gerke—is to ask ourselves, "Could the camera see this? Could the microphone pick this up?" And if not, we should ask how to make it visible or audible.
This trick keeps us from writing phrases like, "Piper felt angry." Though a sentence like, "Piper smiled," isn't telling because it's something the audience can see.
After reading last Monday's post, you might have been tempted to rip from your novel every phrase that can't be put on a stage. But let's consider this sentence:
If he didn’t know it already, Jeremiah Crane is about to learn that I’m not the type of girl to be pushed around.This is the first line of my manuscript. You can make a case that it's telling. After all, you can't see or hear that on a stage, can you?
But this falls in the quirky category of internal monologue. We're tuned in to Piper's thoughts as she prepares to engage in a battle to defend her friend. And if we had a microphone in her head, we would be able to hear this. When you're checking your internal monologue to see if you've crossed over to telling, that's a good test to run. Because it would be telling if I instead used one of these:
I'm angry with Jeremiah Crane and intend to teach him I'm not the type of girl to be pushed around.
When Jeremiah takes the seat my friend is about to sit in, I decide to teach him I'm not the type of girl to be pushed around.
These cross a subtle line into telling because they are sentences that seek to explain to the reader what is happening and which emotion the character is feeling.
And that's what telling primarily is—explaining something to the reader rather than letting them interpret details for themselves.
So when can you explain something to your reader?
You have to make sure it's a question your reader has been asking.
A common issue among new fantasy writers is to open with a prologue that details the history of their country. But on page one, your reader is not asking about the history of the country. They don't care yet because you haven't given them a reason to.
And almost all new writers (and some not-so-new writers) struggle with dumping too much character backstory into the first few chapters. We do this because we desperately want our readers to understand everything. We don't want them to be confused, so we pause the story to explain.
Let's look at something on page one in my manuscript. This is still Jeremiah and my main character, Piper.
Jeremiah glances at my hand. “I see you haven’t changed.”
I push my bruised hand into my pocket.
Jeremiah’s gaze flicks beyond me. “I believe your friend has found another place to wait. If talking to me offends you so, perhaps you should join her.”
Now what if I had instead written:
He glances at my hand. “I see you haven’t changed.”
I push my bruised hand into my pocket. Sister Alice had beaten me with the ruler again when my sewing stitches weren't even.Jeremiah’s gaze flicks beyond me. “I believe your friend has found another place to wait. If talking to me offends you so, perhaps you should join her.”
The first example is more intriguing. Why is Piper's had bruised? What kind of girl is this? But in the second example, I raise the question in one sentence and answer it in the next. That won't build intrigue and keep readers turning pages.
How do you know if the reader is asking the question? You should be dropping in teasers, same as you would as you're pacing a big reveal in your story. For something like Piper's hand, which isn't a big part of the story, I'll maybe make one more mention of it before we find out what happened. Even then, I'm going to do my best to tell as much as I can in dialogue rather than outright pausing the story.
For something bigger, you may require a flashback or a brief here's-what-happened summary. You can get away with doing this only once or twice during a novel, so make sure you pick wisely, that you've placed your hints well, and that you don't dawdle your way through the explanation.
Here's another fine time to tell rather than show - in the first draft.
My first drafts are full of telling. It didn't take me long to pull a few examples out of my manuscript. (These are pulled from different sections and are unrelated to each other.)
I lean back in my seat, deflated.
I laugh and feel strangely embarrassed as I touched my bobbed hair.
“Piper, I’m going to give up baseball.”
Give up baseball? Walter has been obsessed with baseball his entire life. And he’s so good. “How can you even think that? Did training not go well?”
Those are all moments that I crossed into explaining to my readers rather than letting them interpret. When I do my micro-edit (my second round of edits) I'll be looking for ways to convert this telling to showing.
Are there any questions I can help answer about this?