Angela: Amy Eye is our contributing blogger of the night with an excellent tutorial on an often overlooked subject. Any is a professional formatter and editor at The Eyes for Editing and the author of several soon-to-be-released children’s books, including Sable.
If you have been writing for any amount of time and spent any of that time with a critique group or an editor, I’m sure you have heard the phrase “Show; don’t tell.”
But I bet there are some of you out there who are still a bit fuzzy on what in the heck that means. How do you show anything in a book without pictures?
We aren’t watching a movie. How are we supposed to show something with mere words? That, my friends, is what I am here to tell you today.
When we write a book, we want the story to play like a movie in our reader’s head. We want them to feel the tension, mourn loss, gasp with excitement, and envy the romance. But how do we do that?
We immerse the reader in the world with the words we choose in the manuscript. Let me give you an example…
Johnny was thrilled it was his birthday. He could hardly contain the happiness at seeing his friends and family all there to celebrate his big day with him. When his cake came out of the room, his best friend, who had moved away last year, carried the cake in. Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes.
Johnny bounced up and down in his seat. He jabbered to anyone who would listen about the balloons, the presents, and the guests who had attended. As the cake’s candles emerged from the darkened kitchen, Johnny grasped the edge of the table to hold himself in his seat. His best friend, Jacob, who had moved away, held the cake below a smile brighter than the dancing flames below his face.
The previous two paragraphs are an example of showing verses telling. Can you tell the two apart? Which one tells you more about what is going on and which is showing you the scene, letting you gather the information yourself based on what you have read? Go ahead – reread them. I’ll wait.
Now, by this time, I gathered that you noticed it was the second paragraph that was showing more. We got to see the scene better, we felt his happiness, could sense it. The narrator didn’t just tell us what was going on “Johnny was thrilled it was his birthday.” The scene showed that one line throughout the entire scene by everything that was going on.
Both paragraphs convey the same message, but the second was more visual because it showed how Johnny was acting, the scene around him, and a bit of the tone of the party.
Many people worry that showing verses telling takes too many words. There are 54 words in my first example, and 70 in my second. So is the showing paragraph longer? Yup – but as I haven’t worried about pruning things down, we could probably lose a few of the extra words in there too. So overall, we are sitting on a passage that is close to the same length. And it’s definitely a better idea to throw in a few more words to make it a much better reading experience for your readers than to try to keep yourself to a word count and have a book where the readers are blind to your scenes. We will talk about ways to cut word counts down in a later blog post. :)
What’s another way to keep with the “Show; don’t tell” message? Abstract words. Words that can mean so many things to so many people. What types of words are these? Here are a few words I want you to think about for a minute.
Big Small Large Tall Short Heavy
Pretty common words right? How can anyone POSSIBLY not know what they mean? How can they get confused? Big means it’s big, right?
Of course it does. But it’s all subjective. What seems large to a cat, will seem small to the horse. What seems gargantuan to a child can be small to an adult. Here’s an example. As I was growing up, my grandma seemed like one of the biggest people in the world. Her arms embraced me when I was sad, and, boy, when I had to look up into her face when she was angry… I had never seen anyone bigger in my life. As I grew up, I quickly stretched taller than her mere 5 foot 2 inches, and suddenly, I was looking DOWN on her. She was no longer “big” – she was just the woman I still wasn’t going to anger. But her physical stature was completely different to me, even though she hadn’t changed at all.
The same goes with the rest of these words above, and all other vague words. Will they do in a pinch if the
“perfect” word isn’t there? Sure. But it’s not very concrete. Try to change these vague words with something a little more identifiable. Let me be cliché for just a moment here and give you an example.
His palms were big. (It’s big, right?) His palms were the size of hubcaps. (Now that is HUGE.) His palms were the size of dinner plates. (That’s still pretty big.)
So if we say his palms were big, how big were they? Different people could interpret “big” to mean different things, and the examples above show us how to convey what our image of big was – it gives them concrete information to go off of.
Play around in your manuscript. Where have you been cutting the scenes of your “movie” and not showing the readers what was really happening? Where could you be a bit more descriptive and less vague? Use these tips to really pack a punch with your visuals.