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Monday, October 3, 2016

Stop Explaining Your Story (And Start Showing It)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
At some point, nearly every writer struggles with show, don't tell. It's just one of those aspects of the craft that's integral to good writing and difficult to explain well. Which is funny, since explaining is part of the show, don't tell problem. The more you explain, the more told your story feels. 
Anytime you stop the story to explain why a character is doing what she’s doing, or how something came to be, you’re probably telling. People rarely halt their actions to think about the why—they just do it. This is why simply putting the information into an internal thought doesn’t work.
Not only does explaining risk telling, it frequently kills the tension of the scene because you’re not leaving anything for readers to figure out on their own. Rare is the person who will watch a sporting event after hearing the final score.
Writers frequently add explanations for fear their readers won’t understand why the characters are acting or what something means. But more times than not, if you have to explain it flat out, you haven’t laid enough groundwork for that reason to be clear. That’s an issue with the writing, not the told prose, so just "fixing" the told prose doesn't always fix the problem.
For example:
·      When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she slapped him.
·      Kim ran from the room because she didn’t want to see him with another woman.
These explain the situation and reasons behind the actions, but it wouldn’t take much to show enough details for readers to understand what’s happening and why. Let's add just a few details to show what we're explaining: 
·      Stop it. Stop it stop it stop it. She trembled, the words a mantra holding back her fury. “Enough!” she screamed, slapping him.
This allows readers to see the character's frustration build until she "couldn't take it anymore" and acted. They don't have to be told that's how she feels, they can figure that out by what she thinks, says, and does.
·      He stood by the fountain, smiling at the woman who’d replaced her in his life. Kim frowned and turned around. No way was she walking in there.
This shows Kim acting like a person struggling with seeing an ex with a new girlfriend, and letting readers figure out why. It also allows you to show Kim's emotional state and use that to connect with readers. The emotional impact of, " she didn’t want to see him with another woman" is much different than Kim's defiant refusal to look at the new couple. Readers can wonder what she's feeling and what will happen next.
Storytelling is all about dramatizing, while exposition is about explaining, which is why you typically find a lot of it in the beginning of a story. Exposition is necessary to tell a story, but it hangs out with some pretty unsavory characters—infodump and backstory. Unless handled carefully, they can be story killers.
The basic definition of exposition sums up the pitfalls nicely: writing or speech primarily intended to convey information or to explain.
That’s also a solid definition for told prose. In writing terms:
·      It’s when the science fiction protagonist gets into an anti-gravity car and the story stops to explain how it works and what it looks like.
·      It’s when the romance protagonist has a bad date and the story stops to explain why this guy was particularly rough on her due to her past.
·      It’s when the young-adult protagonist visits her dad at work and the story stops to explain how unhappy he is in his job and why this is upsetting her.
Notice the key phrase in all of those: the story stops. When the characters stop acting like themselves and your author-ness sneaks in to make sure readers understand some aspect of the scene, you’ve probably dipped into the telling type of exposition.
This is so easy to do (and so common) that Mike Myers even named a character after it in his Austin Powers movies: Basil Exposition, whose job is to come on screen and explain the relevant plot information in that scene. Need a summary of what the bad guy’s been up to? Just ask Basil and he’ll explain it all. While this is a clever way to spoof the cliché in the movies, it doesn’t work the same for a novel.
In the worst cases, explaining the story can insult your readers' intelligence. It can look as though you don’t think they can “get it” unless you explain it, and that can be a little condescending. If you’ve ever had someone explain a joke to you, you know how annoying that is. Trust your readers to get it.
However, sometimes you do need to explain things to readers so they can understand and enjoy the story, and there’s no natural way to write it without spending pages dramatizing something you could just explain in a line or two. In these cases, there's no harm in a little telling. Just make sure it's the best thing to do for the story.
Knowing when to show versus tell can be a challenge, but if you look at what you're explaining, and think about what character actions and thoughts get that same idea across to your readers, you avoid a lot of unintentional telling.
Do you struggle with show, don't tell? Have you ever explained too much in your story?
Check out my new book, UnderstandingShow, Don't Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don't tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work.

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win. To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I'm going on a three-month blog tour--and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me. It's easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I'll randomly choose a winner. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Janice Hardy
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). She's also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.
*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)


Janice Hardy said...

Thanks for having me!

JEN Garrett said...

One of the biggest indicators that I've grown as a writer is that my prose does more showing than telling. It's sometimes hard to "get out of the way" and let your characters show their story.

Janice Hardy said...

Great! That's definitely one of the big hurdles. I think POV is another one. :)

Rachel Federman said...

Great advice - thank you.

Unknown said...

My worst writing sin! Got the e-book yesterday and reviewed - so much CLEAR advice on a difficult technique. Having trouble holding myself back from digging in before I finish my first draft

Unknown said...

I find that in my first drafts I do a lot of telling, almost like stage directions -- I need to tell everyone what the characters are doing at every moment! (I started out doing theater before creative writing, so I think that's where it comes from.) Then I have to go back and flesh out reactions (and my writing expands and sometimes gets bloated as a result). But these are good tips! Thanks!

Janice Hardy said...

Rachel, most welcome!

JC, aw, thanks so much! LOL resist the urge :) But I'm glad it's resonating with you.

Ginny, I can see how a theater background would influence your writing in that way. If that process works for you, and you have no problems cleaning it up on draft two, that's fine. Every writer has their own style. But if you're looking for a way to streamline that some and cut back on the bloating, just looking for words such as "because" and "when" can help you quickly find places where you're explaining. Easy to search for them and edit without having to read the entire draft again.

Vahlaeity said...

Thanks for a lovely clear explanation. I 'll purchase you book as an early ( in time for nanowrimo) Christmas present for my self.

Rochelle said...

Love this post! It's a great reminder in my own writing and is something that I'm working on for an editing client, too.

Janice Hardy said...

Vahlaeity, aw, thanks! Hope it serves you well and leads you into a successful NaNo. ;)

Rochelle, thanks! Perfect timing.

Dina von Lowenkraft said...

love your examples - they really help me understand showing vs telling!

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks Dina, glad to hear it :)

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks Dina!

Lori Sizemore said...

Great examples of showing vs. telling. I often find myself deleting telling as I write. It's scary to trust the reader sometimes, but necessary.

Janice Hardy said...

It is :) Beta readers can be huge helps to double check to see if you got the balance right, too.

Suzi said...

The frustrating thing is that it's easier to see this in other people's writing than it is my own. I've looked at my Whens before to see how I can do them better, but I should probably do that with the Becauses too.

MusiCelt said...

Thank you for this, Janice.

Having written news and other non-fiction material (not books) for decades, I seem programmed to write facts. Learning to describe body language and other evidence of those facts is like trying to learn to write with my non-dominant hand! I've read every "show don't tell" article I've come across, and still do it wrong. Thank you for sharing your knowledge this way.

Janice Hardy said...

Suzi, it really is. It doesn't hurt to double check. That's why I keep a list and run through it :)

MusiCelt, I can see how that training could work against you. But "facts" are what you're going for--giving the facts and letting readers make the assumptions based on those facts. Maybe try thinking about your characters as "the reporters?" Look at what they'd consider facts and how they'd report things. Maybe that subtle shift can point you in the right direction.