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Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 1)

Monday, May 4, 2009

After judging fourteen entries in the ACFW Genesis contest over the last week or so, I wanted to send almost all of the writers through my Showing vs. Telling online course. Aside from making the prose pop and the story more immediate, using showing instead of telling language deepens POV and makes the characters pop off the page. So let’s look at how using showing language can help deepen POV and draw our readers even closer into our stories.

BACKSTORY (see also Showing vs. Telling—The First Date)
Because our stories are supposed to begin in media res—or in the middle of an active scene—giving the character’s entire backstory in the first chapter or two isn’t really deep POV. Think about it: when you’re going about your day and something extraordinary happens (you meet someone, a conflict pops up in your life, you’re stood up on a date, you’re in the middle of watching the biggest project you’ve ever worked on fall flat around your ears), you’re not going to be thinking about your life’s story. You’re going to be focused on what’s happening in the moment. It’s through interaction with others that hints about our backstory usually come to life, whether as thoughts or as dialogue: when something reminds me of a time when I lived in New Mexico; when something comes up about high school reunions and I mention my 20th is this year; when I’m with a group of people who start talking about college and where we attended; and so on. Keep your character, and thus your reader, in the moment . . . and by doing so, you’ll find the right moment to reveal important information about your character’s backstory in a realistic manner.

CHARACTER DESCRIPTION (see also Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall and Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder)
Incorporating descriptions of what our characters look like is very difficult. But again, put yourself in your character’s place. Do you sit around and think about swishing your long, blond hair around? Do you think of yourself of looking at him with your sapphire blue eyes? Only if you’re narcissistic. And that can be a good way to build the character of someone who is that way. But for the other 98 percent of the human population, we aren’t always thinking about what we look like. This is where using more than one viewpoint character in a book comes in handy. However, as I give examples of in the above mentioned Showing vs. Telling posts, there are ways to incorporate adjectives and descriptors that will start filling in some blanks about your viewpoint character without having her stand in front of a mirror and examine herself from head to toe. Part of this is done with the character’s internal vocabulary. Part of it is done by figuring out the cultural and ethnic markers your character possesses.

CHARACTER EMOTIONS (see also Showing vs. Telling—Feeeeeeeeeelings . . .)
This was one of my favorite blog posts I ever wrote because it wasn’t until I wrote it that the difference between showing and telling really clicked for me . . . and it came when I wrote this:

      There are two standard signposts of telling when it comes to descriptions, senses, and emotions:

      • Character WAS adjective. (Ned was handsome.)
      • Character FELT adjective. (Charlotte felt tired.)

      This is the type of writing that comes natural to most of us. Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it? (Ha! And I wasn’t even trying to come up with an analogy!)

      One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was in a seminar in grad school: make the emotions DO something to the character. Make the emotion the subject of an active verb instead of just an adjective. (Get out your grammar book if you must.)

      Which of the following sentences gives you the best visual of the emotion being experienced?:

      • Molly felt scared.
      • Fear made Molly’s skin tingle.
      • Fear tingled on Molly’s skin.
      • Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.

      Yes, showing uses more words. But it also draws the reader into the story and is an opportunity for characterization. In which sentence do you feel like you know something about Molly? Also, don’t be afraid of similes, metaphors, or other symbolic language—just be sure to avoid clichés or dogeared language.

I have used this example in my notes on the Genesis score sheets every year since I wrote it in 2007. Can you see how eliminating telling signpost words like FELT takes the reader deeper into the character’s viewpoint? Again, it all goes back to putting ourself in the character’s mindset. I don’t think, I feel cold. I think, My blood hurts, it’s so cold out here. It’s not, I feel like I’m going to throw up; it’s, Where’s the closest toilet? I’m gonna hurl. See how deep POV works?

18 Comments leave one →
  1. adrienne permalink
    Monday, May 4, 2009 4:23 pm

    I’m not a writer but I am a reader, and I get what you’re saying. When it comes to describing what the character looks like I prefer to have some kind of description, but sometimes I’ll have finished the book and realize that there wasn’t much to go on. And you’re right, a lot of times the book will start out in the middle of an action scene, which gets me hooked to the story forgetting about really picturing much except for what is going to happen next. Good post.

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  2. Jennifer permalink
    Monday, May 4, 2009 6:30 pm

    Okay so that’s one of my challenges I face every time I start writing – my first chapter (of my first draft) without fail always has too much back story – I found it even more difficult on my contemporary novel as opposed my time travel one – I have cut out more of my beginning for Kathryn’s Hero because it was too much “backstory” not enough story. I even (gasp) has a flashback in my opening – oh it was quite bad. I think it’s one of those things that you never get in the first draft. It always takes me4 or 5 revisions before I start to get that beginning starting in the moment.

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  3. Jennifer permalink
    Monday, May 4, 2009 6:34 pm

    PS: I think I’ve completely nixed “felt” from my vocabulary 😀 It was one of those words I used when I first started writing and some one said your telling and every since I mentally just chopped it out of my writing, wouldn’t even let myself consider using it. “was” on the other hand…still working on that one 😀

    Oh and can I mimic you? Putting in CHARACTER DESCRIPTION IS HARD! Especially when you’re writing in first person – oh my word. It took me till my tenth draft before I figured out a way to work in character description. And then when I find a moment that works, some agent went and told me don’t put it on the first page *sigh* I can’t win 😀

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  4. Jess permalink
    Monday, May 4, 2009 8:43 pm

    I think a big part of this is having a pretty good idea of your character’s backstory before you start writing. That’s the only way I can find to make it seem natural.
    I still don’t have much description of the hero. In the first chapter I have his height and that he wears glasses, and later that he has curly hair, but I don’t think his hair and eye color have even come into it yet, and it’s three-quarters finished. Would this be a problem for some people? Do readers need a full-on police report before the first half is over?

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  5. Monday, May 4, 2009 10:02 pm

    Oh. Ow. Every time I think I’ve got POV down, it comes back and hits me in the face. That “felt” and “was” is such a part of my writing. Ouch. I find that even if I describe the emotion, I still use felt, like “Molly felt fear running down her spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet”, to borrow an example.

    And I am so bad about descriptions. The way I described it, my hero had the biggest ego on the face of the planet. 😉 I now try and use other characters to describe them.

    Backstory…UGH. I used to write the entire backstory, way back three generations. 😉 It’s difficult to break out of that mindset…honestly, reading classics that always have a lot of backstory doesn’t help. 😉

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  6. Monday, May 4, 2009 11:20 pm

    Jess–
    If you’re writing romance, then yes, it probably would be a problem that you don’t get the entire physical description of your hero into the book. Romance readers want to know what the characters look like. It’s a convention of the genre.

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  7. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 10:39 am

    Okay, Kaye, I’m going to be bold here and ask you something about your sentence “Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.” Is that not an example of 1 + 1 = 1/2. To me, it’s telling and then showing on top of it. It could potentially insult the reader.

    Wouldn’t “A hundred tiny mice with cold feet ran down Molly’s spine.” sufficiently show the reader that Molly is feeling fear, unsettled at that moment. We don’t need to be told of the fear, I don’t believe, as the circumstance of the scene would be enough for the actual feeling to be defined in our mind. Wouldn’t it?

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  8. Jess permalink
    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 11:34 am

    I know they need to be in there, I just don’t know when. Should it be before the first half? The first quarter?
    What I want you to do, of course, is make a table in Excel, telling me the latest point I can get away with describing each thing. You know “Eyes–before page 25,” etc. 🙂
    The more the heroine notices his looks, the more “aware” she is, and I want that awareness to grow throughout the novel, not come out all at once. I guess I want to know how slowly I can go.
    Thanks for this post–I really hadn’t thought about it that much, or realized I’d gone this long without putting them in.

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  9. Renee permalink
    Tuesday, May 5, 2009 1:13 pm

    Wow I was interested in taking a creative writing class in college but sadly, I never got to it! This is the first time I’ve ever read anything like this on a blog. It’s great! I really would never think about showing vs. telling and now the next book I pick up, I’ll probably look for examples of this technique. The difference between “Molly felt scared” and “Fear ran down Molly’s spine…” sheesh who knew a few words could make such a change! I learned never to wear a “felt” dress, thanks for the tips!

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  10. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 1:37 pm

    Eileen,
    Yes, that’s a good point, that by making it a metaphor instead of a simile shows even better. However, there are circumstances in which the emotion (fear) needs to be named to make a simile/metaphor work. It all depends on the structure of the scene in which the sentence is used. If it’s a rather innocuous scene (at the movie theater, walking in the mall, or whatever), utilizing the simile and naming the emotion alerts the reader that it’s not just a cold chill, that it’s fear that’s doing this to her. Because I don’t know about you, but for me, there are several emotions, and a couple of physical conditions, I can think of that would give that kind of sensation.

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  11. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 1:46 pm

    Jess,
    More on this in Tuesday’s post!

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  12. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:02 pm

    Totally agree with you, Kaye, but I think most scenes are set up in such a way that the telling isn’t usually required, especially if we’ve done a good job of revealing our character’s reactions up to that point and how they feel about certain people and situations. I guess you have to play it scene by scene. I’ve just been nixed on this a few times from crit partners that I’m hyper sensitive about it overdoing it now. Thanks for clarifying.

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  13. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:18 pm

    The more I hear Genesis judges refer to this year’s contests entries as examples of what not to do, the more nervous I get. 🙂 But, this is one of those things that I think comes from writing. Lots and lots of writing. Not uncommon for newbies to be all telling. Gets better with practice. Over time, I’d like to think I might get to a point where I think in deep POV as I write, rather than having to tell it, then fix it in order to show.

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  14. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:24 pm

    Eileen–
    Don’t forget, critique partners aren’t your average readers. Don’t let them critique you to the point where you’re losing your own unique writing style.

    As much as we need to make sure we’re using strong showing language as much as possible, we can’t overdo it to the point that we’ve lost our unique voices. After all, that’s what’s going to make our prose more memorable to readers than whether or not one description was only 80 percent shown and 20 percent told.

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  15. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:25 pm

    Patricia–
    That’s what the revision process is for!

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  16. Tuesday, May 5, 2009 2:34 pm

    Love the great tips you are giving! Showing vs. telling and relating it to the first date ~ HA! 🙂 No need to make the boy run away in fear giving him an entire life history in the first hour. 🙂

    Looking forward to reading your upcoming posts (and going back to read your others).

    Jolanthe

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  17. Carie Lawyer permalink
    Thursday, May 7, 2009 11:15 am

    I’m going through my manuscript doing a find for “felt” and am disappointed to find how many times it appears. But it’s a great challenge to find new ways to describe emotion. I’m love this series, Kaye. Thanks for the great examples and instruction.
    Carie

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  18. Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:27 pm

    Blurgh, let’s not talk too much about feeling like one is going to throw up…I spent 6 hours Thursday night hurling into the closest toilet.

    I appreciate your point about the narcissism of self-description. I hadn’t thought of that before. Makes me think of my novel WIP, in which the hero, who should have POV in the opening chapter, is omnisciently described as having hair the color of black walnuts…and he’s not supposed to be self-obsessed.

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