Friday, October 9, 2009

Writing Workshop: Show VS. Tell

I was in Edmonton last week, teaching fiction at a writer's conference. Because I am a meanie and don't provide my workshop participants with handouts (it helps us to focus on the material when we are forced to make notes, and it helps us to organize what we are learning), I promised I would post both the workshops I taught on this blog.

I hope all my readers will find something in these workshops that help them on their writing journey.

The first workshop I taught was on Showing VS. Telling in fiction writing. It introduces two components of the concept - POV and subtext. Enjoy!

Showing VS. Telling in Fiction Writing

Let’s begin at the beginning. What do we already know about Showing Vs. Telling in fiction writing?

*Fill in your understanding of the concept here: _____________________ *

Like all aspects of writing the concept of showing vs. telling has multiple layers. Showing vs. Telling is a concept we pull out of the context of the novel in order to examine it closely, but in doing so we find that it is not a simple disconnect. It is, in fact, made up of several components of writing. It isn’t a concept that can be talked about with accuracy apart from the concepts that comprise it.

So, if we look at the concept of showing vs. telling as a bubble, floating above our heads. We can grab hold of the bubble, and pull it towards us, examine it from different angels. But when we look inside of the bubble, we see it actually has several other bubbles inside. They work together to fill out the larger concept, the give the bubble shape and meaning – substance. Then, well see that this bubble called show vs. tell is part of an even larger bubble. Okay, let’s all sing Tiny Bubbles.

The purpose of this workshop is to look inside the bubble of Show vs. Tell, and discover some of the inner bubbles that give the concept it’s shape and meaning.

Myth busting 1: Showing is all about describing what a character is doing.

Our first stop, though, is to do some myth busting – the myth that showing means describing what a character is doing.

The most typical answer to the question, “What is showing vs. telling” is something along the lines of “telling is stating something happens, showing is describing what happens.” And while that definition is, in some ways, technically correct – it misses the point, and makes it easy for writers to miss the point as well. It isn’t enough to describe events in detail – there must be a purpose for both the details you are describing and the characters that are performing the actions.

Here is an example of from an unpublished work – the author will remain anonymous - that adheres well to the mythical definition that showing means “describing”:

**She hurried down the path toward the dark palace, the cloak draped over her arm. The birds over head sang their goodnight song. She shouldn't have stayed so long at her friend's house. She walked faster, picking the hem of her skirt up with her free hand. She pushed a low hanging branch out of the way as she hurried past. She reached an opening in the trees that lead to the valley that would take her to the doors of the palace. She stopped and draped the cloak over her shoulders and tied it at her throat. She checked inside the bag that was slung across her torso. Fire sticks, water, a small cloth, her Father's book of Hope and a forgotten apple.

She pulled the apple out of the bag and bit into it. She made quick work of the apple and threw the small core and stem into the forest behind her. She slapped at her dress, removing most of the dust from it's folds, then took the small cloth from her bag and wiped at the stains around the hem of her dress. She replaced the cloth and stepped into the grassy meadow. It was wet with evening dew. She picked up her skirts and rushed on toward the place gates. **

This is a great example of a writer employing the definition that “showing” is giving all sorts of details about what a character is doing. We hear some lengthy descriptions here – she is moving all over the house, doing housework – there is a hint here and there that there is some sort of reason she’s doing this. The scene mentions exposed nail heads – obviously pictures taken off the wall. Lots going on in the scene. And it talks of all sorts of movement – but for all the detail about what she’s doing, it’s still telling. It’s flat. A list of mundane activities being spelled out in succession. This is an example of why showing isn’t just description of what is happening. It mostly ends up as over explaining things the reader doesn’t need explained.

What’s missing? I’ll tell you now there are two things missing here we will be looking at in detail, two bubbles inside our larger bubble, but they aren’t the only things – What do you see in this passage that makes it “telling” instead of “showing”. (jot down their ideas) – just talk about what you see – you don’t need to use technical literary terms, that’s not what this is about. Plain English works fine.

POV as part of showing:

The author has substituted Point of View (POV) with teasing the reader.

POV is a pillar of “showing” – it’s a brace for the concept, because POV not only introduces characters to the reader, it grounds the reader immediately, creating a safe and trustworthy place for the reader. It isn’t enough to be able to picture what a character is doing – we need to care about the character, relate to her, and feel an interest in finding out more. We need POV immediately. Not only do we want to see POV right away, we, the readers, want to see deep POV.

Let me talk briefly about deep POV - The publishing industry has been moving toward deep POV for the last few years – this is in contrast with the omniscient POV of the past. A couple of important points about deep POV – you might want to make a note of this – it isn’t about first person vs. third person or if you write in present tense or past tense. Deep POV is the presenting characters in a well rounded sense, utilizing character information from their mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects. It’s a multi-dimensional presentation of character that begins the moment the novel opens and continues to develop until the end of the book.

Another point about deep POV – it isn’t referring to just the lead character. This is a bit confusing, because we talk about a book being told from a certain POV – the main character. But all that is, is naming the protagonist. What we are talking about today is the writing skill and tool of deep POV.

But all of your characters have deep POV and they all need to explored in your novel from start to finish. Even though you won’t tell your story through the voices of every character in your book – they still have POV. All of us, in this room, have a specific POV – and all of this plays an equal part in the event we are experiencing – all of us comprise the bigger picture of this workshop.

A great article on deep POV, written by the wonderful and talented Camy Tang is found here:

Read it when you get home – it makes bags of sense and will help you both technically and artistically understand deep POV.

Let’s get back to our example. The author of this scene tells us the character hurries and races, but there is nothing to ground us to the character – who is she? What is she thinking? Why are her actions important to me as a reader? There is no glimpse of the inner world of this character. The closest we get is the line: “Maybe it’d been a bad idea to go out of her way for the freshest green beans.”

But, in the end, it leaves us flat – it doesn’t give us an insight into the character, only that she bought green beans sometime before this scene took place. It’s just telling us some information. The reader is being spoon fed information, rather than being allowed to explore the scene, the character and the meanings behind the actions.

The excerpt demonstrates the major problem with typical surface explanations of show vs. tell is it often translates to long, detailed text describing dull things without giving the reader the “why” of what she is doing. It doesn’t let us care about the character and therefore is flat, a dull list of household chores. Showing is about helping the reader understand, care about the scene, and draw us into it through our senses by the proper use of deep POV.

Now let’s read an excerpt from Talking to the Dead.

Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove

**I rambled through the main floor of my small house that night. Earlier, the sunset had thrown prisms onto my walls, but now it was dark. The only light came from the streetlamp shining through the front window, turning my walls the color of muddy floors. Normal people were sleeping. But I wasn’t normal, not anymore. Several times that night I stood at the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom. I gazed up into the darkness of the second-floor hallway, but I couldn’t climb the stairs. Couldn’t lift a foot to the first step. It was as if my desolation had multiplied the power of gravity. I was stuck.

My body was somnolent, but my restive mind barked out orders to keep moving, stay awake, stay watchful. I paced on rubbery legs, longing for unconsciousness. My mind, luminously awake, sewed blindfolds of anger and forged a strong rope of despair. Bound and helpless, I spoke: “Kevin?” Only the ticking of a clock responded. I picked up a cushion from the sofa and hugged it like a lost love. “Kevin, are you there?” I waited for an eternity. I closed my eyes and concentrated on trying to hear his voice. I listened until my head hurt. The silence whistled to me. **

Can you see the difference between the two scenes when it comes to use of deep POV? What are some of the things you notice about this excerpt in relation to POV?

Write your stunning insights here: _________________________________________

The use of deep POV grounds the reader in the scene – we are no longer watching a character perform a series of tasks – although, there are still a series of tasks she performs – rather, we are “in” the scene with her, feeling the weight of sleep deprivation, of grief, of helplessness and false hope. All of this is “shown” instead of told, in part by use of deep POV, giving meaning and purpose to the actions the character performs – there is a purpose, clearly stated, for what she is doing. But at the same time builds emotional interest, and shows us something deeper is going on – in other words – it is showing.

There is one more excerpt I want to share with you – this one is to prove there are no excuses when it comes to using POV as part of showing. This is the opening paragraph from Latter-Day Cipher by Latayne C. Scott.

**There on the damp pine needles, Kirsten Young lay on her back, a serene Ophelia in her dusky pond of blood. The dark irises of her bloodshot eyes stared unseeing into the branches above her. The sun had burst through the clouds after the sudden downpour and now blazed above the canopy of conifers and aspens in Provo Canyon. Deep in its recesses, the light filtered down in vertical sheets of champagne dust that played across the body.**

Aside from being exquisitely well written, this is a fantastic example of POV in the most difficult of writing circumstances. Even though the first character we meet is dead, a body on the forest floor, we are still immersed in the scene by the skillful use of POV. The woman is dead and yet we feel her presence – even look up into the branches overhead with her.

Interestingly, as the scene continues, we find the real reason why we, the readers, are so firmly planted in this eerie place - we are viewing it from inside the POV of the killer. A wonderfully chilling bit of expert writing that moves us effortlessly into deeper and deeper POV.

Myth busters #2 – You should never use Telling.

There is a piece of “telling” in this scene, and it uses telling in exactly the right way. The author gives the name of the place we are standing, “Provo Canyon”. Latayne just tells us – just says it. But it is using telling correctly. It would have been mundane and dull if she had launched into a lengthy description of a canyon – this is a thriller, we don’t need lengthy scenery descriptions, we just need to know where we are. Secondly, the name of the canyon, “Provo” tells us what we need to know about the setting – we’re in Utah. This serves as foreshadowing, this is a novel involving Mormonism.

So that was our myth busting –

Part II

Moving to the next bubble – away from POV -

What is interesting about the excerpts from Talking to the Dead and Latter-Day Cipher is how they invoke emotion in the reader.

Emotions as subtext

Let’s talk about emotions – Emotions are the hot button in fiction. When it comes to showing vs. telling, emotions are key. This is going to lead us into the second bubble we are focusing on today – the first bubble was POV, the second bubble is subtext. But before we get into the gritty details of subtext, lets ease our way in by looking at emotion. Emotion is a good doorway into subtext.

The following is an excerpt from an unpublished work.

**The sun high in the sky. Waves of heat rising from the sand, but he didn't feel the burning. He walked, step by step over the sand. Careless interest changed to fear as he looked toward the horizon. A wave of wind and sand approached from the distance, heading toward him. He looked around him for a suitable place to hide, but found nothing but flat sand. The frightening presence of the sand storm swept closer.

Terror urged him to run - but to where? In what direction? He turned his back to the swell of sand and ran.

From somewhere—his own lips?—came a scream shrill with panic.

The wind picked up around him and his own heart’s hammering pounded in his ears. He fought to control his stark horror as he tried to out run the encroaching sand storm.

In a moment of stark horror, the storm was upon him. He cried out in agony, "Save me!" **

Focusing on emotions -What about this scene makes it “telling”?

I hope that you’ve noticed that deep POV is missing in this scene as well – the reader is left to guess at the character’s inner world and can’t make much sense of what his happening. It would be a good idea to study this later at home to help you understand deep POV.

But what we’re focusing on here is the emotions in the scene.

The author assigns emotions to the character: Terror, panic, stark horror.

Naming emotions often translates to “telling”.

It doesn’t connect us to the event experientially – the reader doesn’t dwell inside the experience of running through deep snow – we’re simply told about it in general terms. Horror is a better genre description than emotion. Terror – what does it mean? What does it feel like? Where do you experience terror in your body?

Naming emotion usually is “telling” as opposed to showing.

Her is an example of showing emotion from Sharon K. Souza’s debut Every Good and Perfect Gift:

**Jonathan took DeeDee to her appointment on Tuesday morning to go over the results of all her lab work, while I kept the baby. My stomach churned the whole time they were gone, and I paced like a pent-up puppy.**

I like this passage for a couple of reasons – one, it is an example of effective use of telling – Jonathan took DeeDee to her appointment. . . etc.. It’s one short sentence that gives us the details we need in order to move on with the story – she doesn’t catch us up in un-needed details. Then, in the next sentence, Sharon invites us into the character’s emotions through the art of showing – she doesn’t name the emotion, but we all understand perfectly what the character is feeling.

That isn’t to say its always wrong to name an emotion in fiction.

Here is an example of naming an emotion that works:

Fallen by David Maine

**The words settled around his heart like an infection. That might have been the turning point, Cain thinks now. As he has thought many times over the years. That might have been the moment when he decided, at age fourteen, that one day he was going to have to kill his brother. Not for humiliating him, no. His father had done that. But for saying he deserved it.**

An emotion is clearly named: humiliation. But with that last short sentence “But for saying he deserved it”, gives the reader an emotional chill, it adds a dimension of something hot and boiling under the simple words – something dangerous.

And that was accomplished without naming the emotion – it’s implied and comes to the readers attention through the backdoor – it comes through subtext.

Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and clich├ęd - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.

In his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".

It may sound mysterious, but it isn’t as vague as it may sound at first brush. It is the art of leaving something unsaid about the stated theme and mood of the book. Your story has a plot, setting, a theme, a message – all of which are stated in the book, through story and the things you explore.

Subtext is used to paint depth of meaning into the pages of your story. It is felt by the reader even though the subtext isn’t explicit. It is the ultimate tool of showing vs. telling.

Rather than me giving definitions of subtext – we’re going to look at one quick example and then we’ll do a short exercise.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson creates John Ames, a Reverend, elderly and ill who writes to his too young son about his life in hopes of imparting something of himself to the boy who will grow up without his father. Listen to all that is not said here:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."

The themes in Gilead are forgiveness, and restoration. They are about reconciling ourselves to the truth of who we are and who other people are. But the thread of yearning for the one thing he cannot have – more time with his wife and son – runs throughout the novel in subtext. Even though he has accepted the truth – he will die soon – the faint echoes of loss and yearning are poignantly felt by the reader.

Subtext whispers the deeper or hidden things though absence, or hinting that something deeper is going on. It brings meaning to dialogue and character development, and adds dimension and interest to the story. Its one of the elements that makes the truly story compelling.

Let’s try an exercise:

A character says, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

Imagine a scene – a snapshot in your mind where one character is saying this to another character. (get examples – look for characters, context, setting, back story). Very quickly – what are you seeing in your snapshot?

Now, think about the same line of dialogue, but add a subtext of meaning – the character says the same line, but the subtext. What the character is feeling underneath the statement is “I want you to love me.”

The character delivers the same line, but the subtext is his or her need to be loved by the other character.

What changes in your scene when you add the subtext of “I want you to love me”?

Something that would change for me would be the way the character is standing, perhaps her posture, or what she does with her arms and hands. The expression on her face changes, the tone of her voice – the way she says the words, not in the clipped tones of someone in charge, but in pleading bleats that trail off, and lack conviction.

Subtext isn’t willy nilly – you don’t grind it into a scene just because you can. It connects with your plot, and with each character. It whispers specific meanings of your overall theme – subtext ties the book together as a whole one scene at a time.

This has been a brief introduction to two components of compelling storytelling – deep POV and subtext – two bubbles inside the larger bubble of ‘showing vs. telling’. It’s a lot of information to take in in one sitting, but fear not – you have the Camy Tang article which will help you understand deep POV better – and this workshop will be posted on my blog ( in the next week or so, for you to read over, print off – or ignore as you choose.

Thanks for sitting in today.

I bid you good writing.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Thanks for doing this!

And I'd love to visit Edmonton and ride the Mind Bender roller coaster at the world's largest mall.

Koala Bear Writer said...

Bonnie, thanks so much for posting this information here! Great information and I'm sure I'll be reviewing it as I work on writing and rewriting a few chapters... :)

Steena Holmes said...

Wow Bonnie - so much to take in! Thank you!

Ruth Ann Dell said...

Hi Bonnie

Thank you so much for this workshop!

I'm not able to attend writer's conferences as I live in South Africa and the traveling costs are prohibitive, so information like this is literally a Godsend to me.


Ruth Ann

Bonnie Grove said...

Diane: I'm not a roller coaster person AT ALL, but I do love spending a day at West Edmonton Mall once in awhile. We spend a day at the indoor water slide park/wave pool. Had a blast!

Koala - Glad you are making good use of this! Best to you as you work on your chapters.

Steena - you are very welcome!

Ruth Ann - Great to know this is a help to you! I hope it helps and inspires you as needed.

Nichole Osborn said...

Thanks Bonnie! :0) Wish I could have heard this in person, though.