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Showing vs. Telling—The Sixth Sense

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

As a reminder, here are the three areas Sol Stein lists as 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)

Monday and Tuesday, we looked at the signposts for telling in the five senses:

  • Character SAW/WATCHED (She saw him running down the street.)
  • Character HEARD (He heard a knock at the door.)
  • Something SMELLED adjective. / Character SMELLED something. (Something smelled like it was burning.)
  • Something TASTED adjective. / Character TASTED something. (The sweet taste of the apple filled her mouth a moment before she realized it was poisoned.)
  • Character TOUCHED something. / Something TOUCHED character. / Character FELT something. (He looked down when he felt something brush against his leg and saw a cat.

Now we’re going to look at the “sixth sense” when it comes to writing fiction—internal thoughts/stream of consciousness of our characters. The signposts for telling in this area are along the lines of:

Character KNEW (She knew he was unlikely to ever change his mind.)
Character THOUGHT (He thought she might consent to stay a while longer.)
Character WONDERED (She wondered if he would ever stop tapping his fingers.)

A while back, I posted an entry about the difference between incorporating a characters thoughts as narrative in deep-3rd POV and italicized direct thoughts of the character. As I went into detail there, I will not go too much into the discussion of whether or not to use direct thoughts or to incorporate. What I am going to talk about here is how much attention we call to the fact that what we’re writing are our characters’ thoughts.

When we first start out writing, because we’ve read other authors who used it and because we want to make sure our readers know what’s going on, we would write something like this:

  • She wondered how she could have let her cousin talk her into another blind date.

Which, if you’re just telling a story is okay—you’re the narrator and you are telling the reader what is going on in the character’s head. When we move over into showing, though, we’re getting deeper into the character’s head—narratively:

  • How had she let her cousin talk her into another blind date?

This opens up another whole debate in the world of writing craft because there are a lot of critiquers and contest judges who have a deep-seated loathing of questions in narrative. But, this forces the issue: which of the above examples is telling and which one is showing? (And which one is more wordy?) As always with your writing, you must make this decision based on what works best for your voice and style as a writer. The best advice I can give is read, read, read books in your genre published by houses you’re targeting to see what others are doing.

And now, for another episode of Kaye’s Pet Peeve Phrases.

  • Where could he be? she thought to herself.

Two pet peeve phrases in this example: she thought and to herself. Let’s look at the second one first. Unless you are writing sci-fi/fantasy where your characters are clairvoyant, a character’s thoughts are always to herself, thus making the phrase redundant, and, frankly, patronizing to the reader, as if to say that the reader is too thick to realize that the character’s thoughts are in the character’s own head. The phrase she thought is also redundant based on the fact that we’re writing in deep-3rd POV . . . especially when using italiziced internal thoughts as in this example. The simple act of setting the sentence in italics shows the reader that these are the character’s thoughts.

What does your character know?

She knew he was unlikely to ever change his mind.

Aside from the fact it’s a passive sentence (signpost: WAS), it’s also telling (signpost: SHE KNEW). She’s your POV character. We’re in her head. When I think something (to myself), I don’t have the thought I know he is unlikely to ever change his mind. I think, He will never change his mind. Direct.

She knew she’d ventured into treacherous territory—TELLS
She’d ventured into treacherous territory—SHOWS

To round out this discussion, we’ll take a quick look at passive vs. active writing. But today’s the day to let me know if there is any area of Showing vs. Telling that hasn’t been covered here that you still have questions about. If you have a few sentences or short paragraph you would like to post for help in changing it from telling to showing, please do so!

  1. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Thursday, February 1, 2007 10:10 am

    I can’t tell you how revelational this series has been. Things I’ve read about before re showing/telling, slid through the holes of my collander-like brain…but this series is ‘speaking my language’ and I think I’m getting it at last!

    Thank you!


  2. Teresa Lockhart permalink
    Tuesday, March 2, 2010 9:46 pm

    I am a novice fiction writer, struggling to learn the ropes. I have been torn between writing in first person or in third. For this book, I have chosen third, but the character’s thoughts are important. So…you are saying that it’s okay to use italics for character thought? I’ve been doing that. I wasn’t sure about it.

    This info has been extremely helpful. However, I now have a more advanced level of questions bombarding my brain.



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