At the end of last year I wrote a post titled Five Incredibly Simple Ways to Help Writers Show and Not Tell. This week I want to discuss Tip 4 – Avoid Telling Words – in more detail.
‘Just write’ is some of the best advice I have ever received. Forget about the rules and write your heart out. Write until your fingers bleed and the story drips onto the page. Then you write some more. For your first draft, that is what you do. Explore. Experiment.
When it gets to your second draft, you will start looking for the obvious mistakes. You may have too much white space. Yes, it can happen. What about ‘talking heads’? Too much talking and not enough body language and setting interaction to ground your characters. Perhaps you have started with back-story? Go back, find your inciting moment and put it in the beginning.
This is also when you will start looking for instances where you are telling instead of showing. This will become easier and occur less the more you practice. Look out for the words ‘was and were’, ‘have and had’ for example. You should only use them for the verb to be, but most of the time they are making you tell. Verbs can also make you do this. Look at this post on more telling words to avoid.
Look at Example 1:
Arthur was furious. He was supposed to be going home. Instead, he was staying behind in the office, at six, on a Friday to do everyone else’s job. He had asked so many times. He had pleaded with them to empty their trashcans on a Friday before they left, but they never did. He was so upset. They were so irresponsible. Didn’t they realise what a risk it was? He was using his plastic gloves and wearing his mask and still he was shuddering as he was emptying yet another full wastebasket into the black bag. Did they even know how many germs were festering in the bins? They thought they could rely on the cleaning services, but the cleaning services were only coming in on Mondays.
Now, consider Example 2:
Arthur glared at the clock as it tick-tocked its way to six o’clock. The weekend loomed ahead. His footsteps echoed through the deserted office as he huffed over to the nearest wall and read the sign again:
Empty your bin
Germs are a sin
Disease will spread
And we will all be dead
That was perfectly clear? Surely, no one could underestimate the importance of office hygiene? He even made it rhyme to help his colleagues remember it better.
He stomped to the nearest desk, snapped on his gloves and positioned his mask over his mouth before he shook open the big black bag with a flourish. Carefully, he picked up the contaminated bin and emptied the vile rubbish into the black bag. Everyone knew the cleaners only worked on Mondays. He could almost hear the bacteria multiplying as he tied the bag and snapped off his gloves. The mask he would keep on just in case.
Source for comic
It is clear that poor, old Arthur has more problems than just telling, but let’s look at the biggest differences between the two paragraphs.
- ‘Arthur was furious’. This is classic telling. Use a nice strong verb instead, in this case glared. If, for example I wanted show that Arthur was happy, I could write ‘Arthur whistled as he walked down the corridor or he winked and shot his finger pistol at the receptionist as he walked past.’
- I used the senses tick-tocked, echoed, and huffed. These all created images in your mind.
- I had some fun creating the sign. It also helped to convey the extent of his obsession. To say he asked so many times, just means he is a nag. In the second example, there is no doubt about how batty this guy is.
- By showing him putting on his gloves and mask and making him shake open the bag I hoped to establish a sense of drama and of routine. He has done this before. He came prepared. As opposed to saying: not again.
- The repetition of the word ‘snapped’ was deliberate. I wanted you to know that he took this very seriously. The snapping was part of his routine.
- By ‘hearing’ the bacteria he also shows us his paranoia.
- I just had to send him out into the world with his mask on. He is a bit of a nut job after all.
It is so easy to fall into the telling trap, but keep practising. The showing will show up eventually.
[Remember that there are times when you should tell and not show. Follow the link to read more: Five instances when you need to tell (and not show)]
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by Mia Botha
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