Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Critique—STSS: Stop telling, start showing

Sharon Wildwind

This is the third critique abbreviation that shows up frequently in my manuscripts. Stop telling about the character, and start showing.

Let’s start with this sentence: “Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia hated it when an ATM went bad.”

The writer is saying to the reader, I, the author, tell you what Marcia felt when the ATM stopped working. She hated. That last sentence is a did this sentence rather than a does this description.

Writing quote for the week:
“Some writers never see the micro-second between does this and did this. That hangs them up forever in the land of telling. If you can see the gap, you can bridge it!”
~Sherry Lewis, romance and mystery writer

Here are three other examples, all involving that blasted ATM machine:

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia’s stomach went from tight to rigid. The closed glass door behind her wasn’t thick enough to deaden the sound of Donald’s car motor idling. He was out there, waiting, and when she returned without any money, he would punch a few numbers on his cell phone, and her sister would die. The machine spit the card back at her. Marcia wrapped her hand around it, leaving one corner exposed between her fingers. Let’s see what damage a bank card could do to eyes.

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia pounded on the machine, screaming obscenities at it. The louder she yelled, the larger the after-theatre crowd that gathered around her. “This is my last chance with Donald, and no ass-hole machine is going to screw that up.” She turned and grabbed a man’s coat lapels. The fabric felt soft and expensive. “I have to get to the airport. Lend me a hundred dollars,” she shouted into the man’s face. Out of the corner of her eye she saw two police officers heading toward her. She unhanded the man’s coat and ran for the exit. Behind her, two pairs of heavy duty boots pounded on the tile floor.

Somewhere behind the ATM, a metal door slid shut. The green screen blinked Temporarily out of service. Marcia stared at the machine. Blink. No money. Blink. No Donald. Blink. No mistake. So that’s what salvation looked like, a blinking green screen in the middle of a grey metal machine. Marcie leaned forward and rested her forehead on the cool metal.
“Are you all right, miss?”
She turned and smiled at the elderly man in the mall security uniform.
“I’m fine, thank you. My guardian angel just stopped me from doing something stupid.”

The first thing you probably noticed is that each of these examples, which are attempts at showing, were longer than the one that involving telling. My rule of thumb is usually takes 3 to 4 times as many words to show as it did to tell. The original example is 22 words; the three final examples range from 97 to 127 words.

Second, the telling example views the world from what the author has concluded. The showing examples view the world from inside Marcia’s head, even though all three are written in the 3rd person. She’s desperate in the first example, a comic figure in the second, and relieved in the third, but I never came flat out and told the readers any of those emotions. I used Marcia’s own body language, dialog, and her interaction with people and things to convey emotion. The same techniques can be used in 1st person POV as well.

Do you have to use this technique every time? Not necessarily. Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward can be summarized.
• Marcia paid the cashier and took her tray to a table at the far end of the cafeteria.
• The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Marcia practically ran for the phone in her office.
• Marcia looked down at her cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?

Unless the infamous Donald is waiting at that cafeteria table, or leading the meeting, or beside her in the coffee shop, there’s no need to go into character angst for every small detail.

How to recognize when telling, not showing is important:
Is this an emotionally-charged moment for the character? If it is,
1. Have you used a verb, particularly a past-tense verb?
2. Is what the character felt shortened into a summary?
3. Is body language, dialog, and interaction used to convey the feeling?

If the answer to the first two questions are “yes” and the last one “no,” you’ve crossed over into did that land. Go back across the micro-gap. Stop telling, start showing.


Joyce Tremel said...

Excellent advice, Sharon!

Unknown said...

Fabulous, Sharon! It will serve as a permanent Bang to my Head.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to both of you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Sharon, you really nailed it for me. Now IF I can just DO it. Thanks for this terrific series.

Anonymous said...

I was struggling with my writing until I read The Writer behind the words, which has helped me immensely. Now I can add your great tips of showing vs. telling. Wonderful post.