Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Writing Wednesday: Show vs. Tell and POV

I've seen a lot of bad advice floating around lately on what showing actually means. From everything to adding details to using italics, it's getting insane out there.

Showing is really very simple once you understand and focus on one simple, single word:


That's all you need to know to show.

Now, to show in different perspectives is another thing and this is where people get REALLY off track. First person, omniscient or third person, whatever POV you're working in, you adding details and using italics won't turn a telling sentence into a showing sentence.

Let's take the most popular form of fiction writing: Third person. More specifically: close third-person, or close narrative from the third-person perspective. This is when the character is in charge of the story and the writer is only a conduit between him or her and the blank page. Most often the criticism of too-much "telling," is based on a lack of narrative closeness.

Here's an example of the differences in narrative distance:

She couldn't wait for the bus to get moving so she could see all the sights.

The bus rumbled and she silently urged the driver to get moving as she craned her neck, hoping to catch sight of the huge Hollywood sign.

Keeping in mind the single word imply can you see how I changed from telling/far to showing/close?

If we add details or italics, it doesn't change the "Far" example from telling to showing:

She could hardly wait for the rumbling, shaking and smelly bus to roll down the road. I'm dying to see all the magnificent sights awaiting me.

The above is still telling, especially if the character wouldn't think (the italics) so formally.

There's another school of thought that wrongly believes any form of telling is breaking POV, that the writer is pushing aside the character and interrupting the story to talk directly to the reader. This is no more true than a voice-over of a character's thoughts (as in Look Who's Talking) breaching POV, it is true, however, if it is the writer breaking in to tell the reader something the character doesn't know, can't see, hear, feel, taste or touch.

So, the "Far" example above is still in the POV of the character—it's simply offered from a distance. If this were narrator intrusion, it would look like this:

Beverly's long blonde hair sparkled in the sunlight as she bounced in her seat, wide blue eyes fringed with dark lashes glistened with excitement.


Beverly didn't know her excitement was on hold because the bus driver had to wait ten minutes to stay on schedule.

In the first example, ask yourself the last time you were excited to do something and the only thought you had was how your hair sparkled or the color of your eyes?

In the second example, ask yourself how many times you read a bus driver's mind? :)

I think I'll stop here for now, but if you have any questions, please ask!



Martin Bartloff said...

No questions to ask. Very true and super nicely explained.

Actually there is a question. What determines when it's better to use narrative or showing?

Take the bus ride for instance, at what point should a writer make the decision what form to use, Preference?


J.R. Turner said...

Storytelling is a lot like watching a movie (you'll hear writers talk about their mental cinema.)

Transitional scenes are most often where you'll find an author has chosen to tell. Other, less important aspects can be told as well, such as a character eating a meal.

Often books open with a paragraph or so of telling from the perspective of the character--sort of the way a movie does where it starts out as a camera shot high in the sky, then zooms in closer until the audience is taken inside the lives of the characters.

Sometimes an author can insert a line or two of telling if he or she wishes to cover a character's thoughts quickly so as not to slow the pace of the scene.

Does that help?


Martin Bartloff said...

Hey I already knew some of this, you taught me. I wrote my book based on seeing the entire story like a movie, and I still do :-)

I wanted you to clear that up for your fans. You did nicely.

Why not publish your first text
book "Extreme Writings."