Kristin Lenz is a writer and social worker who blogs at YA Fusion. This week she shares a heartfelt post about reading for empathy and resilience, with a giveaway of a debut YA novel. Please stop by, but first, here's her tip:
This summer I had the opportunity to spend a lovely day with a writer friend and her mother-in-law who just happens to be Patricia Lee Gauch, author and longtime Editorial Director of Philomel Books for nearly 25 years. Our discussion never became highly technical, mostly we shared our passion for books and enjoyed the beautiful summer day. But she had one piece of advice that's stuck with me. She thinks the "show don't tell" rule has been harmful. She is finding that writers are so focused on showing, they forget about introspection.
What is the character thinking and feeling, and what does this tell us about her experience, personality, worldview, motivation? As a reader, we need to be drawn into a character's thoughts, emotions, and reactions. As a writer, how do you accomplish this within the balance of showing vs telling? I asked Patricia to expand on this idea to help us better find this balance.
Yes, I think the "show don't tell" rule can cause real trouble. People, hearing that rule over and over, try to accomplish everything by "showing," that is, allowing an action to actually take place through sensory detail. E.B. White was a great advocate of using sensory detail to bring such moments alive. But "showing" can't accomplish everything; some parts of a story must be told, yet it is the "telling" part that is most misunderstood. Narrative summary is "telling," a character's introspection is "telling," summary that takes a story from one time to another, might be "telling."
We can argue about the balance of "showing" to "telling" in any given book but imagine a story without narrative summary, without a character's introspection or narration that may span time and pull a story together. Yes, I particularly worry that in an effort to write most of a story in the "show" mold, the writer forgets that introspection is often where the wisdom of the story is, where we see most clearly who and what a character is. Think of the book Olive Kitteridge without Olive's introspection! Think of Dung Beetle in Midwife's Apprentice without the narrative telling that contains exposition and the changes she begins to recognize in herself.
The truth is: there is a time to "tell" and a time to "show." The real warning, in my view, should be: "Don't tell when you should be showing" such as explaining or reporting a happening when it would do better as a fleshed out scene. Likewise don't show when you should be telling, such as trying to get back story into dialog, out of fear of "telling", in this case telling as exposition.
I'm going to mull over Pat's advice, but it's already starting to click. What do you think? If you'd like to delve into this further, here are a couple related links that touch on this topic:
1. Writer and editorial intern, Nicole Steinhaus wrote a great post about the abundance of "hearts hammering, breaths catching, stomachs roiling" that she repeatedly sees in manuscripts. Read her suggestions for better ways to show emotion with perfect examples from John Green's novel, Looking For Alaska.: http://yastands.blogspot.com/2012/09/physical-telling-action-speaks-louder.html
2. Failing to include a character's internal thoughts is mistake #3 in this excellent article at Writer Unboxed. Read it here: http://writerunboxed.com/2012/09/13/the-biggest-mistake-writers-make-and-how-to-avoid-it/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+WriterUnboxed+%28Writer+Unboxed%29