Monday, January 10, 2011

The secret way you're telling, not showing.

Do your characters blink so much during dramatic scenes that it might be easier to add in a subplot about chronic dry eye than rewrite the whole darn thing?*

Do they clench their jaws enough to give themselves migraines?

Do they swallow, grin, bite their lip, blush, or furrow their eyebrows excessively?

Do they express every emotion via breath?**

TV and movie lovers, beware!

(Ok, all other fiction writers can beware too, but especially you TV/movie folk.)

(Literal example of blinking overload.)

If your favorite dramatic scenes influence you too heavily on paper, you might write yourself into a common problem: over-describing facial reactions.

In many early drafts, I find myself weaving in way too many details during intense conversations. I picture the scene perfectly in my mind and want to transcribe it on paper so that readers would see what I see.

Here's the problem: I find myself transcribing it exactly. Every minor facial expression included.

But we're supposed to show, not tell, right? And when you watch these intense scenes on TV or in movies, the camera's all zoomed up in our heroine and hero's faces, so all the non-spoken stuff is communicated through those little movements.

(Like this made of awesome scene from the end of Ever After.)

In novels, though, "showing" all those little movements ends up slowing down the scene and making it all clunky and boring. You lose that intensity, that meaningfulness you're trying to convey. And you start "telling."

True "showing" is its own art form. It's all about giving your reader just enough vivid dialogue, exposition, and action to paint a picture --- but not a complete picture.

It's like this Degas painting:
Up close, the tutus aren't detailed at all, but the brushstrokes give such a perfect suggestion of the material that you can practically feel the texture.

(Witness the cultured example! My high school art teacher would be so proud.)

One of the most brilliant parts of reading novels is filling in the blanks yourself, connecting to it on a personal level. I don't need to be told every time a character bites her lip or rolls her eyes, because I should know her well enough that I could imagine it on my own. (Just like I shouldn't need to be told the tone of every line of dialogue.)

In conclusion? Beware of this sneaky little version of telling, not showing. Everything in moderation and all that good stuff. :) For me, most of this lesson was about trusting in my writing -- that it was strong enough to paint a picture for readers and evoke their emotions without resorting to over-description. Believe in what you can do!

Comment time! Anyone else guilty of noting every blink and breath? Any I forgot? Anyone suddenly in the mood to watch Ever After?

* Actually, eyes perform all sorts of acrobatics beyond blinking.
** The comment this refers to was from a Nathan Bransford post on general writerly tics -- overused phrases, verbs, punctuation, etc. It's semi-related to this, but definitely worthwhile to check out simply for editing purposes, and for a good chuckle on how all writers seem to have their characters turning everywhere and looking at everything. And we use "well" and "just" all the time!


  1. I love Ever After. I also struggle to find the write balance between over and under describing. It's something that must be learned.

  2. I am also struggling with Show vs. Tell now in my rewrite, and I definitely am guilty of using those details. Just gotta keep working at it. It is my main focus of improvement.

    And yes, I think I need to go watch Ever After again. It's been a long time and I've always enjoyed that movie. :)

  3. Man, I really want to watch Ever After again now.

    Movie clip aside, fantastic post. I know I use "just" way too much, and the facial tic thing is a really easy crutch to use. After this, I'm definitely going to be paying more attention to those moments.

  4. I've never watched Ever After.
    I might just be over using discribing....

  5. "Guilty as charged," she said, her cheeks blushing. :)

    Great post.

  6. Cheree - Ever After is awesome! I'm wondering why I don't own the DVD. Good luck -- I think it's a common writerly struggle!

    Annie - I knowww! I'm so glad you found the post helpful. It's such a tough balance to weave in just enough facial/body movement (and thoughts!) in a conversation.

    Everyone else -- Thanks for commenting! Your reply is via email!

  7. Ah, I knew this was your post from the start, Donna. And it's a helpful one. Thanks!

    Yep. Guilty. My 1st-person characters constantly feel their faces growing warm. And my current antagonist's eyebrows tend to arch a lot or she purses her lips.

    Oooooh. Gotta work on that. Thanks for the Nathan Bransford link too.

  8. I just recently found your blog and have been sifting through some past enteries (love the Vampire Diaries write-ups!).

    I didn't have the show/don't tell on my radar until I read a draft that was way overly telling and describing. I was so irked by it I thought I need to check my own writing to see if I'm being a total hypocrite. It's defnitely a challenge, and good reminder to be aware of it. Thanks!

  9. Joanne - Warm faces! Good one! It's so funny how something that's great in small doses just messes with your writing when it's too much.

    Stephsco - So glad you found us! One of my favorite ways to improve my own writing is by examining what bothers me in other books. Good luck with your writing!


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