If you’ve been writing for more than a week, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the advice “show, don’t tell”. I’d heard it so much, it had lost almost any meaning. I only understood it to mean “be descriptive”. But at the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in Cincinnati, I learned what agents and publishers actually expect.
In her session on the subject, Tessa Emily Hall said that “show, don’t tell” means I can only write what the point-of-view (POV ) character experiences or thinks in that precise instance in the story. I call it virtual-reality POV. The writer is limited to what the POV character can take in through his or her senses and his or her knowledge and thoughts at the “present” moment.
If you write in first-person POV or third-person POV from a single character per chapter, this concept makes sense. If you use third POV, omniscient, I am not sure how this works.
Once I grasped the concept, I realized why it has been so hard for me to master.
The Friendly Narrator
My favorite stories, from Dr. Watson to Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders are told in first-person POV, but the story is related as a past event.
For example, Dr. Watson often begins a story by describing how he’s been reviewing his notes of his recent adventures with Sherlock Holmes and has decided to describe in detail this particular tale.
Readers discover at the end of The Outsiders that the novel is Ponyboy’s English assignment, so he comments on the story with hindsight. Archie Goodwin often finishes a Nero Wolfe story by stating that a few days ago, the verdict came in on the case they solved.
This style makes me feel like the narrator is a friend I am sitting down with for a private chat. I also love how the style lets the narrator directly address the reader.
From Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout:
Nero Wolfe is investigating cases of plagiarism and realizes all three cases are the work of one person because of how the copycat uses paragraphs. His right-hand man Archie Goodwin says, at the end of a long paragraph: “The next sentence is to be, ‘But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,’ and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.”
From The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:
Ponyboy Curtis, who is called a greaser because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, says, “Incidentally, we don’t mind being called greaser by another greaser. It’s kind of playful then.”
From “The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan:
“If ever you see a man put his fingers in his ears and whistle Dixie to keep from hearing the truth, you may assume he’s a fool, but if he put his fingers in your ears and starts whistling, then you know you are dealing with a journalist.”
This was the style I was using in my novel. My main character Junior was telling the story as if it was something that happened in the recent past. Writers can still use this style — Mr. Klavan wrote his story in 2007 — but in YA, it seems like not only are more stories written in first-person POV, but also in present tense. You can’t get more immediate and in the moment than that.
So I have been reviewing my manuscript under a microscope, seeing if I can master this technique. In my next tip, I’ll recommend two books that have helped me understand all the intricacies of”show, don’t tell.”
This post has been almost four months in the making, and now I think is the right time to publish it because I finally have a conclusion.
In September, I went to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas with high hopes. I had spend the past year building my platform and revising my YA novel with the help of a freelance editor. When an agent wanted to take my business plan and first three chapter, my confidence soared.
Four days later, the agent e-mailed me, stating my writing had problems, mainly in the area of “show, don’t tell”. I couldn’t understand it. My editor had pointed out those areas, and I thought I had fixed them.
The next few weeks, my mind was a tornado of questions and doubts. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough to be a published writer. Maybe I should just write for my own enjoyment. Perhaps I was too old to master a new writing style. To say I was depressed is like saying the Arctic is brisk.
And then I noticed something. Even while I was questing my talent as a writer, I was still thinking like one. I’d see an unusual sunset and file it away until I could find story to accompany it. Someone would make a joke, and I would wonder which of my characters to give it to.
I finally realized that regardless of whether I ever got published, I was a writer. I enjoyed the art too much, and my brain seemed designed for it. I had to be a writer. God made me that way.
Six weeks after the conference in Dallas, I went to one in Cincinnati. I was in no mood to go, but since I had already paid, I went.
Sponsored by Serious Writer Academy, it was the best writing conference I ever attended. Since it was small, I had many opportunities to take to attendees and instructors. Author and agent Tessa Emily Hall taught a class on “show, don’t tell”, and I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Now I had to figure out if I could actually implement what I had learned.
In my next post, I will discuss what I discovered was my key to understanding “show, don’t tell”.
Here are two posts from the Write Conversation which describe ways to increase the amount of writing you can fit into a day.
The first. “Word Crawl”, doesn’t sound like it would work for me. And I already do something like that when I am waiting — in the car at school, at doctors’ offices, at games. But I thought I would post it in case others might find it useful.
I can’t follow all the advice in “6 Creative Ways to Boost Your Writing in 2018”. The last recommendation, “Drink More Coffee”, is impossible for me, shocking as that is for a writer to admit. I can’t choke the stuff down even when it’s loaded with sugar, cream, and chocolate syrup. Maybe tea is a decent substitute.
But the third way, “Define Your Peak Time and Stick to It” is good advice, although I would reverse it. “Define Your Non-Peak Time.” Last Saturday, I thought I would get up early and get some writing done first thing, straight out of bed. I sat down at my desk, and the idea of trying to revise a chapter seemed as impossible as running a marathon. I need to fully wake up before I tackle anything as demanding as editing, let alone writing a first draft.
How do you find more time to write? Or what ways do you know don’t work for you?