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Tip Tuesday #144

Tip Tuesday features writers' tips on craft, research, querying, blogging, marketing, inspiration, and more. If you'd like to send in a tip, please e-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

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

Always learning,
Kristin Lenz


mooderino said...

I think action can reveal character, even deep seated emotion, if handled right. Showing doesn't just have to be showing simplictic behviour.

But internal monogue is certainly an important part of writng, although that can be horribly abused too.

Interesting post.

Moody Writing

Natalie Aguirre said...

Another great post this week Kristin. How awesome you got to hang out with Patricia. It's taken me a long time to get better at the internal thoughts and getting them in my character's voices. And I do think there's a place for telling in narration as well as thoughts vs. showing. Though I'm not sure I've gotten the right balance. It's refreshing to know that it's okay to tell some.

Beth said...

A great tip, and I'm looking forward to checking out those links. Thanks, Kristin!

Martina Boone said...

Excellent tip, Krisin! Thanks for sharing. The Show Don't Tell "rule" is so easy to misunderstand. I've definitely "got the teeshirt" on this one. :D



Laura Pauling said...

Awesome tips! If everything was shown in a book the story would be a thousand pages. For me, the best writing, the best stories I've read, are the ones that tell well. That is the most difficult kind of writing. The stories are told but the language is strong, the emotions present and I keep reading.

Jessie Humphries said...

Holy H. I love this advice. I am going to take the next half hour to study these articles. Thank you so much.

Lisa said...

I give this tip two thumbs way up.

Kessie said...

Oh good, I'm always so encouraged when I read people explaining how much showing is too much. I frankly get tired of writing all those physical reactions. I recently read a manuscript I finished 3 months ago. The only physical reaction I thought the character ever needed was when he's trying to control himself, and trying not to clench his fists.

Also, hooray for internal monologue! Have you ever read Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones? The pivotal moment just before the climax is two or three pages of internal monologue as the hero works out the two halves of his personality and how to bring them together. It's riveting.

Anonymous said...

You bring up some good points, Kristin. Thanks for helping
me not to be afraid to include thoughts and narrative.

Old Kitty said...

"Don't tell what you should be showing" - that sums it up for me! Thank you! Take care

Ann Finkelstein said...

I'm applauding your post.

Janet Johnson said...

What great advice! I believe Mary Kole did a similar post. And I really liked that first link. Excellent!

Angela Brown said...

This is very good advice. We do hear "show not tell" on such an oftimes basis that we could lean too far from narrative exposition that is helpful in giving the reader needed character insight.

Gina Gao said...

This is such great advice!


JeffO said...

It's about time. Spend anytime at all on sites where people put their work up for critting and you see an abundance of knee-jerk, 'show, don't tell' responses. It may be the most misapplied 'rule' of writing ever. Thank you!

Kristin Lenz said...

Yes, Mary Kole wrote a post touching on this too. I almost included that link. Is this the one you were thinking of:

Kristin Lenz said...

A huge thanks to Pat Gauch for taking the time to share her thoughts and experience!

Anonymous said...

Many thanks to Kristin and Patricia.
Heading into revisions of a novel that needs to cut about 10,000 words, I'm delighted with this post. I'm off to tell it like it is . . .

Unknown said...

This. Is. EXACTLY what I needed to read today!!!

Thanks so much for sharing!!!