Showing = Reader’s Experience – Part 2 – Two Gems

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Welcome again editor Vie Herlocker in her two-part series on showing versus telling. Learn more about Vie at the end of her post. Here’s Vie:

New writers often ask me what showing instead of telling means. In my search for resources to help them better understand the concept, I found two gems: 

I’ll share one feature from each book.

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Gerth uses a series of comparisons to define “showing and telling.”  I found her description to be quite helpful in dispelling the mystery of the elusive beast:

  1. Telling provides the author’s conclusions and interpretations. Showing lets readers think for themselves.
  2. Telling gives the reader a secondhand report like a newspaper account. Showing allows readers to experience through the character’s five senses. 
  3. Telling summarizes past events or gives general statements. Showing places readers in real time scenes with action, dialogue, dramatization.
  4. Telling is abstract. Showing uses concrete, specific details.
  5. Telling gives facts. Showing evokes emotions.
  6. Telling distances readers from the story events. Showing makes readers active participants.

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Hardy’s chapter on identifying telling intrigued me. She presents seven tell categories and notes multiple red flag words associated with them. Her detailed examples illustrate how to move from telling to showing. I’ll share just one of Hardy’s red flag words under each category—and will include examples of my own. 

1. Motivational Tells: these tell a motivation that the reader could figure out from the action. 

  • infinitives (to + verb)

Telling: Shirl leaned over to get her cup off the counter. 

Showing: Shirl leaned over and got her cup off the counter.

2. Emotional Tells: these combine an emotion with a red flag word, like “in fear,” “in anger,” etc.

  • in
image by Tris0

Telling: The softball landed at Mr. Green’s feet. He shook his fist in anger at the kids next door. 

Showing: The softball landed at Mr. Green’s feet. He shook his fist at the kids next door, then pocketed the ball.

3. Mental Tells: these tell us what’s going on in the character’s mind.

  • realized

Telling: Fred turned the key in the ignition. Not even a sputter. He realized the battery was dead.

Showing: Fred turned the key in the ignition. Not even a sputter. The battery was dead.

4. Stage Direction Tells: these tells explain the action as a director or script might do and can introduce sequence errors or give information before it happens. (This category can be quite subtle, and each red flag word has specific issues.) 

  • when 
image by isakarakus

Telling: James closed the gate when the stray dog came into the yard. 

Showing: The stray dog moseyed into the yard. James closed the gate to keep him contained. 

5. Descriptive Tells: these tell what the character sensed. (This is often called “filtering.”)

  • felt

Telling: She felt the cold wind through her thin jacket. 

Showing: The frigid wind pierced her thin jacket.

6. Passive Tells: yep, the plain old passive constructions.

  • was

Telling: The table was set by Fran. 

Showing: Fran adjusted the tablecloth, then placed the good china and the silverware on the table.

7. Adverbs and Telling: while not all adverbs are telling, they can signal possible telling passages.

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My copies of these books are highlighted and filled with sticky notes. Consider adding Sandra Gerth’s and Janice Hardy’s books to your reference collection as well. Both are quick reads, budget-priced, and packed with useful information.  


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Vie Herlocker is the associate editor for Surry Living Magazine in Mt. Airy, NC. Her experience includes ten years as executive editor of Sonfire Media/Taberah Press and six years reviewing books for Blue Ink Reviews. 

Vie is a member of the Christian Editor Connection, PEN, ACFW, ACW, and WordWeavers. She received the 2017 Christian Editors Network Excellence in Editing Award for a nonfiction book.  In 2018, a book she edited won the Selah Award for YA fiction at Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. 

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Vie was also the editor for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.

Showing = Reader’s Experience – Part 1

image by Lilawind

It’s my pleasure to introduce editor Vie Herlocker, my guest today while I’m on a writing sabbatical. Please learn more about Vie after her post. Here’s Vie:

Often during an edit, I’ll type the time-worn words, “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly moves writing from telling to showing? And just how can writers create this thing calling showing?

Janet Burroway, professor at Florida State University, in Edition 9 (Edition 10 released in April 2019) of her book, Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, describes the challenge of showing on the written page:

Fiction tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience. And this is a more difficult task, because unlike the images of film and drama, which directly strike the eye and ear, words are transmitted first to the mind, where they must be translated into images. (p. 21, Ninth Edition)

Burroway encourages writers to move beyond the words and the thoughts the words produce, focusing instead on the resulting experience the reader feels. She shares five writing tools to create experiences—some of which you may have not considered as a counterpart to showing:

  1. Significant details (specific, definite, concrete, particular) 
    1. A detail is definite and concrete when it appeals to the senses. These bring life to fiction.
    2. Avoid naming (telling) emotions: Mary was embarrassed. Show details: Mary turned her head, but not before the wave of red swept from her neck to her forehead. 
  2. Comparison (some work, some don’t) 
    1. Simile and metaphor are the most used comparison tools. Simile uses like or as in comparison: Her smile was like sunrise to my soul. A metaphor does not: Her smile was sunrise to my soul.
    2. Avoid clichés, far-fetched metaphors, and mixed metaphors
  3. Active Voice
    1. Burroway states that linking verbs (to be) “invite complements that tend to be generalized or judgmental.” Ex: The teen was irritating. 
    2. But active verbs lend themselves to significant details. Ex: The teen’s constant slurping his soda and crunching the ice during the movie irritated me. 
  4. Prose Rhythm
    1. Match the cadence of the sentences with the action of the scene. For example, a series of short, clipped sentences fail to show a raven soaring on gentle summer thermals; likewise, a long, rambling sentence can’t capture the feeling of a tango competition.
    2. Use strong verbs, instead of relying on adverbs, to enhance rhythm.
  5. Mechanics
    1. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, and paragraphing are critical to writing—but they should be invisible.
    2. Poorly done mechanics, Burroway explains, destroy the magic and the “reader’s focus is shifted from the story to its surface.”

Well, that’s a start on a few ways to show instead of tell. Were you surprised to see rhythm and mechanics included? I’ve come to the conclusion that all the components of fiction overlap and depend upon each other. In a follow-up post, I’ll explore more techniques to move from telling to showing.

Vie Herlocker is the associate editor for Surry Living Magazine in Mt. Airy, NC. Her experience includes ten years as executive editor of Sonfire Media/Taberah Press and six years reviewing books for Blue Ink Reviews. 

Vie is a member of the Christian Editor Connection, PEN, ACFW, ACW, and WordWeavers. She received the 2017 Christian Editors Network Excellence in Editing Award for a nonfiction book.  In 2018, a book she edited won the Selah Award for YA fiction at Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. 

Vie was also the editor for Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days.