Skip to content

Make POV Work for You: Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Okay, one more contest judging anecdote. I’m currently judging entries in a first-three-pages contest for a small RWA chapter in the Midwest. I got through six or seven of them while waiting at Valvoline for my oil change and tire rotation. Every single one of them used the verb peeked in their first three pages! Why do I mention this? You’ll see in a moment.

For now, let’s return to our review of Showing vs. Telling and how it ties in with deep POV.

THE FIVE SENSES (see also Showing vs. Telling—Do You See What I See? and Showing vs. Telling—Do You Smell What I Taste?)
I mentioned on Tuesday two signposts of telling in previous posts (WAS and FELT), but would like to add a few more when it comes to sensing:

  • 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.)
  • Here’s how this ties in with POV. When we “tell” that a character saw something (She watched him running down the street), we are holding the reader back from truly being inside the head of the character. When I see something, I am not (usually) cognizant of the fact that I am in the process of “seeing.” I just experience the action going on outside of me. So how does this work in prose? Let’s look at an example from Candy’s point of view:

    • Candy watched Mike throw open the door and storm out of the house. OR
    • Mike threw open the door and stormed out of the house.

    The second example shows the action through Candy’s eyes as she experiences it. We’re right there with her, not held back from her like an objective observer which is what happens when we tell our readers that the character is seeing, hearing, thinking, knowing, etc. Yes, occasionally we need these telling phrases to make a complete sentence/thought. But before writing them, we should ask ourselves if there is any other way to phrase the sentence so that the action is more immediate and seen only through the lens of our character’s eyes.

    Most of the sensory information we include in our writing is seeing and hearing. With hearing, it’s a little harder than seeing, because what someone hears is not immediately recognizable at times. Take the example I used above, He heard a knock at the door. Most likely, he is not going to know who is on the other side of the door, and since we are talking about writing in deep POV, I as the author cannot step outside of my character to say who is knocking at the door if the viewpoint character does not know. So I must see if there is another way I can rewrite it:

    • Mark glanced up from his book when a rhythmic tapping interrupted his concentration. “Will someone please get the door?”
    • The door rattled in its frame with the force of the pounding on the other side.
    • A knock on the door—like the sharp report of a rifle—shattered the stillness of the room.

    One way some writers try to get around this is just to replace the words “he heard” with a pet-peeve phrase: “there was” (There was a knock on the door). The main reason not to use this phrasing at all (or with as limited use as you can) in your writing is that it is passive-nonspecific. In this example, we have replaced a somewhat active verb (heard) with a passive verb (was) and a specific subject (he) with a nonspecific subject (there). Neither of which is deep point of view!

    THE SIXTH SENSE (see also Showing vs. Telling—The Sixth Sense and Internal Dialogue)
    Establishing POV and viewpoint—from the level of omniscience to who the viewpoint character for each scene is—is all about the narrative which, in Deep POV, should be the character’s stream of consciousness. I’ve mentioned before and I’ll say it again: writing in Deep 3rd POV is very similar to writing in 1st Person POV. You want to be as deeply embedded in the character’s mind as if they were the ones speaking, not you. Telling signpost words to watch out for here are:

    • Character KNEW (She knew he was unlikely to ever change his mind. vs. He was unlikely to ever change his mind.)
    • Character THOUGHT (He thought she might consent to stay awhile longer. vs. Maybe she would consent to stay awhile longer.)
    • Character WONDERED (She wondered if he would ever stop tapping his fingers. vs. Would he ever stop that infernal tapping?)

    But here, again, is when you need to balance the desire to show with the overuse of certain narrative devices, like the rhetorical question (such as the third example). You don’t want your narrative to be so overloaded with questions inside your character’s head that they appear wishy-washy because everything is always in the form of a question. You also want to be cautious about overusing italicized direct internal thoughts except for emphasis. In most manuscripts, places where direct internal thoughts are used could be easily changed to third person and serve to deepen the POV.

    MAKE IT ACTIVE (see also Showing vs. Telling—Puppets, Cartoon Characters, or Live Action?)
    Using passive verbs is just like being passive in life—you don’t want to do it. Depending on the type of story you’re writing, you may want to choose soft, descriptive verbs or you may want to choose bold, aggressive verbs. But whichever verbs work best for your story, try to use the active form of them as often as you can! Go through your manuscript and using the “Highlight All Items Found in: Main Document” option, highlight all instances of (whole words) was, wasn’t, were, weren’t, had, and hadn’t (once it finds all instances, you can change the font color or use the highlight feature to color them all at the same time). Then start eliminating those occurrences by replacing them with more active, descriptive verbs. Let your characters’ emotions and the intensity of the scene lead you toward choosing the correct verbs to use to convey what your reader needs to know about your character’s thoughts and emotions—without “telling” the reader what those thoughts and emotions are!

    Oh, and do some peeking at the verb choices other writers use by being aware of them when you’re reading and make sure you’re not getting repetitious or cliché with the choices you make.

  1. Wednesday, May 6, 2009 1:42 pm

    Just in blogging alone I realize how dependent I am on several key words {but Lord help me it’s usually so late when I get to write I’m too exhausted to even THINK about words that might replace it}.

    You give such great examples! AND make it all seem so easy! Thanks so much for your willingness to share your knowledge with us.



  2. Wednesday, May 6, 2009 1:44 pm

    p.s. your little cartoon characters on the side of the comments are hysterical!


  3. Jess permalink
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 5:11 pm

    I was reading “The Flame and the Flower” to see what Woodwiss did to make the romance industry change so much so quickly. Woodwiss uses the omniscient point of view, and for the most part, it’s effective. However, occasionally it would trap her into saying “She knew” or “she realized” because there was no other way to separate Woodwiss’ narration from Heather’s thoughts. Deep point of view takes care of that.
    “It was” drives me crazy! I eliminate it whenever I can but sometimes there’s just no way around it. Sometimes you just have to let “is”…well, be.


  4. The Damsels permalink
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 7:24 pm

    I have to remember to avoid “thought”. I actually use knew and wondered occasionally, but not that often. I usually catch these on the edits though. It was interesting going from third person to first person. I actually found it (once I got used to writing in 1st person) easier to avoid telling in first person than in third.


  5. Wednesday, May 6, 2009 7:26 pm

    Sigh – sorry the post above was by me. I forgot I was still signed into my wordpress account. You’ll be hearing more on that in a couple weeks 🙂 If you could delete that comment and leave this one. Posted my original comments below.

    Thanks, Jennifer

    “I have to remember to avoid “thought”. I actually use knew and wondered occasionally, but not that often. I usually catch these on the edits though. It was interesting going from third person to first person. I actually found it (once I got used to writing in 1st person) easier to avoid telling in first person than in third.”


  6. Mom permalink
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 10:32 pm

    I just hope the verb was supposed to be “peeked” as in “snuck a quick glance” and not “piqued” as in “piqued his interest.”


  7. Renee permalink
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 10:42 pm

    Although I am NOT a writer, I totally get where this is coming from. As a history major most of my professors refused to read papers that contained the phrases “It was” or “I am.” I definitly would rather “see” something than be “told” about it. Thanks for these free writing lessons!


  8. Wednesday, May 6, 2009 11:22 pm

    Yes, it was used properly, just amusing that all six or seven writers chose to use that one verb for the action of taking a quick, surreptitious glance.


  9. Friday, May 8, 2009 10:38 am

    I am soooo bad with all these words. I will definately have to go back through my manuscript and work on this! Thanks so much for doing this GREAT series!


  10. Saturday, May 9, 2009 10:55 am

    These are really greats tips. I find myself using the sense words a lot in my writing. But you’re absolutely right that it is telling, not showing. Your examples are great and helpful, thanks!

    As for passive verbs, I totally agree that they can really hurt writing, but what do you do when you can’t find a better action verb? Do you ever get stuck with a was or were and can’t figure out how to change it?


  11. Saturday, May 9, 2009 4:16 pm

    Janie B. Cheaney’s Wordsmith curriculum is the best I’ve seen for teaching writing to young students, period, and especially the best for teaching “show not tell.” My mom used Wordsmith in teaching me and my brothers writing (I was homeschooled), and I have used it to teach and tutor other students in writing, and I find that Wordsmith-taught writers really know how to show with all 5 senses.

    Wordsmith also produces writers who love writing. I am a writer and editor by profession, one of my brothers is about to graduate college with an English degree and start grad school, and my other brother writes (excellent) poetry and prose. My brothers are working on a novel together using Google docs across the miles…one is in Iraq and the other in Colorado.


  12. Amber permalink
    Friday, July 17, 2009 3:56 pm

    Thank you for these lessons. I’ve suspected I have problems with my WIP and haven’t been able to nail down exactly what is wrong. I get it now, and I’m happily rewriting my manuscript.

    Now if I could figure out how to get MS Word to LEAVE all the words highlighted after I start editing them, I’d be a very happy camper.


    • Friday, July 17, 2009 3:58 pm

      Try using track changes when you do your edits. That way you can go back and see what you’ve changed.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: