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Showing vs. Telling—The First Date

Monday, January 15, 2007

Okay, TELLers, get ready—here comes Stein to the rescue.

As with most other subjects, when it comes to questions of craft, I have once again turned to my handy-dandy copy of Stein on Writing. Stein lists three areas that are vulnerable to telling rather than showing:

1. Telling what happened before the story began
2. Telling what a character looks like
3. Telling what a character senses (the 5 senses) and feels (emotions)

Telling what happened before the story began is, most often, important to the events going on in our stories, whether it’s what someone does for a living, or events from a character’s childhood (“backstory”). I find that dialogue between characters tends to be a good way to get this information across. Most of the time, there will be other characters who do not know all of our protagonists’ pertinent information. Dialogue is immediate, and the beats in between should be active. But it can still be a stumbling block. Here’s an example of what Stein calls “the silliest way that ‘telling’ crops up”:

“Henry, your son the doctor is at the door.”

Dialogue should never be used to convey information to the reader that the character being spoken to already knows. However, a statement like this could work as a way to get the information across if it’s said as a joke, an insult, or something that will elicit a reaction out of another character. For example:

The door opened. Mom looked up and smiled. “Henry, your son—the doctor—is here.”

Craig’s guts twisted and the cereal he’d just swallowed threatened to make a repeat appearance. Would she always compare him to his brother? It wasn’t Craig’s fault editors kept rejecting his novel.

What does this example say about these characters? About what Craig and his brother do for jobs? About how Mom feels about their chosen professions? About Craig’s relationship with his mother?

So many times, I have judged contests or critiqued beginning writers who want to convey all of a character’s backstory in the first chapter. For example:

Anne Hawthorne had lived her whole life in Bonneterre, Louisiana. She’d done little traveling—and that was all done by car. Anne was afraid to fly—had been ever since she had survived the plane crash that killed her parents when she was eight years old. At fifteen, when her grandparents tried to take her on a trip to New York, she had such a bad panic attack trying to board the plane that they’d had to take her to the emergency room.

Important information, but there is nothing happening, no action, no emotion. Whenever I do crits on pieces like this, I always compare the first chapter to the author’s first date—a blind date, even—with the reader. When we first meet someone, we do not tell them our life story. We reveal just enough about ourselves to interest the other person, to hopefully get them to the point where they want to know more, spend more time with us (keep turning the pages).

The above description is of the heroine in my contemporary romance, Stand-In Groom. Throughout the first several chapters, I hint at her fear of flying. Anne’s cousin has just told her that one of the cousin’s brothers has taken a new job as a pilot for a charter airline:

Anne’s stomach churned at the thought of flying.

“Of course, that means Rafe will be gone a lot more now,” Meredith continued. “Most of his flights will be single-day round trips, but occasionally he’ll be gone overnight. He’s going to get to fly bigger planes, too. Not the big commercial planes, but the kind that carry about thirty passengers—”

Bile rose in the back of Anne’s throat and clamminess spread over her skin.

“Oh, Annie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you of—here.” Meredith pulled over one of the tall ladder-back chairs from the table. “Sit down and put your head between your knees.”

Anne sank into the chair, drew a few deep breaths, and tried to smile. “I’m okay. It’s been a long time since I’ve had that kind of reaction just from someone talking about planes.”

“You sure you’re okay?” Meredith crossed the kitchen, took a glass out of the cabinet, filled it with water from the refrigerator door, and handed it to Anne.

Anne sipped it and pressed the cold glass to her forehead. “I guess I’m just tired. You’d think after twenty-seven years, and thousands of hours of therapy, I’d be over the fear.”

But that’s all I “show” about it there. Just a hint that there’s something in her past that would make her nauseated at the mere mention of flying.

In Chapter 8, she and the hero are out visiting potential venues for the wedding she thinks she is planning for him, and they stop for lunch at her cousin’s restaurant:

As they waited for their meals, she struggled to think of a neutral topic of conversation, but was saved from having to come up with appropriate small talk when George remarked, “Hawthorne isn’t a name one would typically associate with Louisiana.”

He wasn’t the first person who’d pointed that out to her. “No. My father was from Boston, but came here for college where he met my mother.” She’d explained this so many times over the years, it was hard to keep it from sounding rehearsed.

“I’ve been to Boston. It’s a very interesting city.”

“So I’ve heard.” Anne traced the ring of moisture her glass of tea left on the table as she took a sip.

“You’ve never gone there yourself? Not even to visit family?”

“I . . . don’t fly.” Anne swallowed hard and raised her left hand to make sure her shirt collar covered the scar.

“Whyever not?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he held up his hand in front of him. “No, wait. I apologize. That question is presumptuous. Please do not feel you have to answer it.”

“It’s all right.” She took a fortifying breath. “You see, when I was eight—”

“Here’s your lunch!” Jenn called cheerily as she swooped down upon them. She gave Anne a wink and floated away to visit with other patrons.

“You were about to tell me why you don’t fly,” he reminded her.

Anne lifted her napkin to dab the corners of her mouth and cleared her throat. “The only time I was ever on a plane was with my parents when I was eight. It was a commuter plane that held thirty people. The pilot tried to take off in the middle of a thunderstorm, but . . .” She took a deep breath to calm her voice and try to settle her stomach. “We crashed, and I was one of only five people who survived.”

Silence settled over the table. He swallowed a couple of times. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be. It was a very long time ago. I tried to get on a plane when I was fifteen and had such a bad panic attack that they had to take me to the emergency room.” She hadn’t meant to reveal that to him. No one outside of her family—except for the airline and emergency room staff who’d helped—knew about it.

He nodded slowly, taking a moment to push a morsel of fish onto the back of his fork with his knife. Before putting the bite in his mouth, he asked, “Where would you have gone, had you gotten on that plane?”

“New York with my grandparents and aunt and uncle.” She pushed her half-finished salad toward the end of the table to let Jenn or the other servers milling around know they could take it away. She’d felt half-starved when they sat down, yet talking about this spoiled her appetite.

“And have you never tried to board a plane since then?”

Why had he decided to take such an interest in this topic? She leaned back against the padded booth seat and crossed her arms. “No. I’d love to see Europe, but I don’t want to go through another panic attack.”

Same information, but here it has elicited emotion from both characters and it also sets up the importance of the idea of getting on a plane for the climax of the book in a more poignant way than just saying, “Anne was afraid of flying.”

Now it’s your turn. Think of an important detail about your main character’s past that needs to be conveyed to the reader and put it in an active setting. Does seeing a dog frighten your character because she was bitten by a neighbor’s dog as a child? Give her an emotional and, more importantly, physical reaction to the sight of the dog stirring the memory of being bitten. When your hero meets your heroine fifteen years after they broke up, how do you get across the information that (a) they were once together and (b) their parting wasn’t pleasant without just telling it? Try it out one of these examples or use something from your own work and post it here for discussion.

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Tuesday, January 16, 2007 9:01 am

    “Telling” the senses tends to be one of my downfalls. She smelled smoke…she felt…she tasted…she saw…those are my weasel words that I have to weed out.


  2. Mary Connealy permalink
    Tuesday, January 16, 2007 9:11 am

    Kaye, I saw that you signed my blog. Thanks for stopping by. The whole ‘promote your book’ thing is making me very nervous. Excited too, but !!!!!!!!!!!!
    Words fail me. And that’s a bad thing if you’re a writer.
    Mary Connealy


  3. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, January 17, 2007 10:00 am

    Great posts, Kaye. I have a few problems with describing my characters. I think I’m SHOWING but then according to crit partners, I’ve jumped out of my character’s POV. Can you address such as this?


  4. CHickey permalink
    Wednesday, January 17, 2007 10:15 am

    Wow! What wonderful information. Great way of “telling” us how not to.


  5. GeorgianaD permalink
    Wednesday, January 17, 2007 12:19 pm

    I do a fair bit of telling, too. I really like your likening chapter one to a blind date. Just divulge enough info to keep them interested. Great post!


  6. Donna Alice permalink
    Wednesday, January 17, 2007 5:59 pm

    Very informative series and one I badly need. Your descriptions were apt too!
    My main problem seems to be body parts—showing movement and such without feeling like I’m moving a puppet.
    And Erica, my aunt once had a clever way to describe the ‘she smelled smoke’ scenario. She did it with appropriate dialogue—“What do I smell burrrrrrrrnnnnnnnniiiiiing!” The last word screeched in a crescendo that could make your toes curl.


  7. Kaye Dacus permalink
    Thursday, January 18, 2007 3:20 pm

    Ooh–Donna Alice, thanks for bringing up character movement. Yes, we will definitely delve into “invisible puppeteering,” because that’s an area where I always feel like I’m posing Barbie dolls instead of just having my characters moving naturally and unobtrusively thorugh the scene.


  8. Kathy Harris permalink
    Monday, January 29, 2007 12:39 pm

    My problem is similar to what Erica mentioned. I also use the verb “was” when I’m telling not showing.

    Does “show not tell” ever become second nature? Or does the accomplished writer deal with it in rewrites, too?


  9. Mary permalink
    Tuesday, February 13, 2007 5:26 pm

    I’m late on this one, but so glad I read it. I love it when examples are given, Kaye, thanks for setting the scene and then showing how to do it by just dropping hints. I’m facing that in my opening. I cut a lot of junk out, and in doing so, dropped a lot of bombs in my first page. I’m thinking now, after reading this, that I shouldn’t tell all like I did. Sigh. Will I ever get past the first chapter in rewrites?

    First date…chanting that as I exit…;O)



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