You make me feel…
We’ve all heard the saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Whether an agent said it to you in a rejection, an editor wrote it in caps and red ink all over your manuscript, or a critique partner was kind enough to use this adage, it’s popped up at least once in your writing career. Many of us, myself included, have been subjected to the confusion of what this actually means. Today folks, you’re going to get not only great tips on how to make sure you’re showing rather than telling, but examples of ways to do it better, and FINALLY an explanation that is impossible to misunderstand.
I thought I was showing?
When I first heard this term, I thought, “Okay, so this means I have to show everything the characters see!” In a way, that’s correct, but it’s more than that. Truth be told, I struggled with this term for ten years before I joined RWA and went to a meeting at what is now my home chapter of NTRWA. Back in November when the City of Bones teaser trailer came out, I sent out an email and started a conversation that led to my becoming critique partners with the wonderful, Clover Autry. In her very first critique of the first fifteen pages of my novel, she told me how to show.
The following are some of her comments on writing my writing and explaining how to show. Obviously what she said is in bold.
You asked about how to “show” instead of “tell.” Instead of having your character state that he feels like, just do it. Let us readers right up in there and experience everything he feels as he feels it.
Don’t tell me wings tore out of his back and leave it at that. Have him feel the knobby tips explode through his skin from the back of his shoulder blades and the feathers unfurl shadowing his head. Let him feel the broken pieces of his bone in his arm scrape against each other and reknit. These are new experiences for him that readers want to experience too. Let us feel his shock as Anubis’s fur lifts in tufts, and his skin sizzles and smells awful before turning to ash. You have a lot of great images going on, let your readers up close and personal and experience them with you. Go for it. Embellish to your heart’s content.
And the one sentence that stuck with me the most is this.
They should say, “feel, don’t tell, IMHO.”
When she explained it that way, the ideology behind “show, don’t tell” clicked for me. It helped that she rewrote a paragraph of my novel too. I think to see the original and the rewrite will help you understand how to employ this technique. Now, one thing you’ll learn as you write to feel aka “show” is that the technique uses more words. That is okay though. Onto the rewrite. The original is in italics and Clover’s comments are in bold.
My temperature was intense, I felt as if I were about to start convulsing from an ever-rising internal heat. My heart beat too fast in my chest. The pressure all this was creating in my head was too much. Unable to do much else, I screamed out and felt an inferno ignite within me.
Within seconds, my sweat began to steam, before my skin ignited in flames. My skin wasn’t harmed, but my scrubs were. Anubis yelped, and leaped away from me. I quickly tried to fling the burning garments off me, while holding my broken arm as still as possible. I’d cast fire before, but never like this. The fire I’d cast before was barely harmful; this could set the entire state on fire.
(I’m going to rework the above paragraph just to show you how to move from “telling” what’s happening, to “feeling” it. I’m sure once you get what I’m changing, it will become second nature to you because I can tell your writing is that good already. Also, a lot of times, this description/telling mode comes out in the first draft as you are just trying to get the story down on paper, and then a writer will change it from telling to showing on the second or third pass. Don’t take this rewrite as criticism because it’s not. I just know from my own experience that when someone shows me what to do with my own words, and I can see how I was “telling”, I learn better.)
The temperature grew intense. I thought at first it was the air, but it was me, internal heat burned through my veins, my organs were boiling. My heart beat raced—too fast. Pressure thrummed in my head, squeezing against my skull. Too much, too goddamned much. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t fight Anubis. Helpless, a scream poured out as an inferno ignited within me. The sweat coating my body began to steam, so hot, so hot . . . and my skin ignited in flames. My scrubs burned away, leaving spots of unblemished skin beneath.
And yes, I do now get this technique. IT DOES WORK AND YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
Try this exercise.
Pick up the scene you just wrote. Go back over it. Do you utilize every sense in that scene? Don’t scoff and think, “It’s in the dark, so I can’t use every sense!” Oh how wrong you would be. We have limited vision in the dark, but our other sense are heightened then. Think of what something smells like, how the texture of paint on the walls feels under your skin in the dark. What do you taste? Notice how your hearing is stronger—did you hear that creak in the floorboard? Honestly, make a checklist of the senses and check them off on each scene. Make use feel as if this novel is happening to us!
Now, once you’ve done that, read over the scene again. Did you use words that helped add to the emotion of the scene? Did you quicken the pace? Was there enough tension?
Check out this section I created the other day. I was reading over my ms and found this area, a perfect place to “feel, not tell” and by extension, show emotion. This is another thing that agents and editors want when they say, “show, don’t tell.” Again, the original is in italics and rewrite is in bold.
Truthfully, I’d knocked on Nicky’s door to see if she had heard my screams. I’d been plagued the past six weeks by nightmares. I didn’t want anybody to know that I was having them because they freaked me out. Not only that, but the nightmares seemed to be getting worse. They felt so real too, like echoes of something important I had forgotten.
I’d knocked on Nicky’s door to see if she had heard my screams. Now, back in my room, I slid down my door. Tears flowed down my face. I held a hand to my mouth to muffle the chocking gasps escaping me.
I’d been plagued the past six weeks by nightmares and I didn’t want anybody to know that they had become worse. Fear griped me in its clammy hand when I awoke, heartbeat throbbing the beat of racehorse hooves. My breath caught in my throat and I choked on the remnants of the ghosted images. The nightmares exuded echoes of something important. The experiences rang with the realness of memories.
So, as you can see, this technique works and can make your writing better. I challenge you to make your writing, “Feel, not tell.” I know you can do it.
Make sure to come for my next post where I’m interviewing an author. My guest this Thursday is, Jo-Anna Walker! And next time on Touchdown Tuesdays, Discovering Literary Techniques, I will expand on ,“Feel, don’t tell,” with a list of words that “tell” and how to rewrite them to “feel.” I’ll also have a downloadable file that expands upon this.
To show how much I appreciate all of you, I am offering to critique the first ten pages of your work. Make sure to leave a comment though! Everybody who leaves a comment will get their names put into a hat at the end of the month. The more posts you comment on, the more times your name will be put into the hat!