Viewing blog entries in category: General Writing
Spend any time around writers, and you will surely hear the sage but cryptic advice, "Show, don't tell." But what the heck does it mean, and why do people keep saying it? Is it a hard and fast rule, or are there times you should and should not follow it?
First off, what is it? Here's a simple example:
"But wait," you say. "Isn't the second one telling us she is blushing, and that she is looking at her hands?" Yes, but you have to think in terms of the real message being conveyed. In this case, Gwen's emotional state is the message.
In this example, showing takes more words. On the other hand, her reaction reveals more than simple embarassment. It implies a bashful response, probably to a compliment, as opposed to humiliation or some other form or embarassment. It's a richer expression of her emotional state. If you really told what her emotion is, it would probably require considerably more words than the showing.
Many people assume that showing requires more words than telling. It may be true in the simplest examples, but showing is often much more concise when the message is complex or ambiguous. Emotions and sensations are often complicated, with conflicting components.
Consider point of view. When we watch two people having a quiet conversation in a restaurant, we can't read their thoughts and tap into their nerve impulses. But we can see if one person is angry, or afraid, or distressd. How do we know? By the body languiage, actions like crying or a raised or trembling voice, all the elements you would write when showing those feelings. By showing in your writing instead of telling, you help preserve the point of view.
Showing isn't limited to character moods and feelings though. You can also use it to describe setting. For example, you could describe a street as cold and windy, or you can show it though a character's reaction to it, pulling his coat tight and leaning forward to protect his face from windblown ice crystals.
Showing can help you experience the setting better than telling, because you know what such a day feels like from your own experiences.
But that doesn't mean you should never tell instead of showing. Sometimes simply saying:
Showing is often more expressive, but it can take more thought to do it well, and sometimes it just isn't the best choice anyway. So although it's always good advice to consider showing vs, telling, it isn't the answer in every situation.
Good writing will judiciously mix them. Show and tell.
At any given moment in fiction, the story is being told from some point of view. In literary terms, that point of view is described in terms of narrative person: first person is told as if the narrator is the same as the character currently in the spotlight, third person is told as if the narrator is observing the currently active character. I’m referring to the character in this way instead of main character, because in a particular scene or passage, the character in focus may not be a main character of the story at all.
But before going any further, the narrative person should not be confused with the grammatical person of any particular sentence. The grammatical person refers to the sentence subject and verb. Pronoun subjects may be first, second or third person, singular or plural, but noun subjects are third person singular or plural. The verb must agree in person and number with the subject.
The narrative person, on the other hand can generally be considered singular, because the words are presumably narrated from one mind at a time, unless the narrative is delivered by a hive consciousness. Also, the narrative voice is usually first or third person, although second person has been used to tell a reader what he or she is perceiving. Personally, I abhor second person POV; it’s like treating the reader like a hand puppet, and don’t ask where the hand goes!
To illustrate why narrative voice and grammatical voice may differ, consider these two paragraphs:
I felt a fat wet drop splash on my face. I looked up and saw a grey wall of rain approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.Both of these paragraphs are written from a first person point of view, but the second paragraph alternates between first and third grammatical person in the individual clauses. To me, the second paragraph flows better, feels more natural. So when someone suggests you write a section from a particular person, they are usually referring to the narrative person, and it does not mean you should change the person in each and every sentence to match.
A fat wet drop of rain splashed on my face. I looked up. A grey wall of rain was approaching from the east, and I ran for shelter.
In terms of drawing a reader into your story, you need to establish a point of view (POV), and maintain it. Yes, it is valid to shift POV, but if you don’t choose the transitions well, you can leave the reader “floating”.
If you have not worked on holding a consistent POV before, you should probably write a story or two with a single POV throughout, so you can more easily pay attention to when you slip out of that POV. Here’s an example:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. The settlement, founded in 1843, had provided a haven for travellers from Indian attacks for thirty years.Do you see where the story fell away from Benjamin’s POV in the third sentence? Suddenly Benjamin is alone and forgotten at the crest of the hill, while someone else begins giving a history lesson.
There may be times you want to switch over to an omniscient POV, but you should never do so in the middle of a scene. Here’s the same paragraph, but keeping Benjamin present:
Benjamin hurried up the grassy slope, puffing from the exertion. As he crested the hill, the settlement of Fort Matthews sprawled in the valley before him. Benjamin wondered whether travellers still fled there from Indian attacks, thirty years after the settlement was founded. He suddenly felt very exposed atop the hill.You want to keep the reader hooked into the scene, especially at the beginning of your story. Maintaining a well-anchored POV will help you immensely in this regard.
One subtle thing to watch out for is narrator intrusion:
He heard a low rumble, and saw the sand grains dancing on the floor.In the first sentence, you are watching the character as he hears the rumble and sees the sand grains begin moving. But in the second sentence, you are the character. I call the first one a popcorn POV, because the perspective is as someone in the cinema watching the action take place, whereas in the second sentence, you are fully embedded in the scene. Whenever possible, you want to avoid the popcorn POV and get the reader into the character’s shoes.
A low rumble sounded, and the sand grains began dancing on the floor.
Another common mistake is to think of your POV character as a perfect recording device, instead of a person with limited focus. In other words, you might be tempted to describe everything the character can see or hear, instead of what he or she would actually notice and pay attention to.
For example, when you run into a friend you have seen nearly every day for the past decade, you won't notice her auburn curls tumbling about her narrow shoulders. You would notice that it's Erica, and she seems excited about something.
So make sure that what you describe is not only what the POV character can observe, but also what he or she would observe at that time and place.
Entire novels, and excellent ones at that, have been written using a single POV. Others tend to restrict the perspectives to a small number of viewpoints, often two. But no matter how many points of view you operate from, maintain the focus carefully and only switch when you have a good reason to shift the focus of the story.
That is, of course, all from my point of view.
Dialogue is a prominent component in fiction, but is probably one of the least understood, at least in terms of punctuation. Before I dive into this though, I will offer this disclaimer:
The discussion below follows the standards established for US English. In the UK, the roles of the single quote and double quote are often reversed, although the US English convention is still widely offered as the preferred form. Other systems exist as well; a largely obsolete French convention is to begin quoted dialogue with a dash in the left column, then a space, followed in turn with the dialogue.
So far as punctuation within a quoted dialogue is concerned, you should always end the quotation with an ending punctuation before the closing quote. If the appropriate punctuation is a question mark or exclamation point, it remains unchanged, irrespective of what immediately follows the dialogue element.
If the dialogue would normally end with a comma, you will almost certainly be following the dialogue with a tag (e.g. he said, or Eric whispered, etc.), and the comma should remain a comma. If the dialogue ends a sentence, that is it does not flow into a tag, and the dialogue would naturally end with a period, the period is again retained. However, if the dialogue normally ends with a period, and the dialogue has a tag appended to it, then you replace the period with a comma:
In addition to tags, you should also understand beats. The purpose of a tag is to indicate who is speaking the dialogue item. A beat, on the other hand, is an action taken by the speaker before, between, or after dialogue fragments. It serves to insert a pause, while also connecting the dialogue to the person and to the scene:
Thought dialogue is a bit more controversial. The mainstream rule is usually that though dialogue is neither enclosed in quotes nor italicized:
In some instances, you may see the thoughts italicized, but that is not the preferred form, and should be avoided:
One other comment. Only one speaker's dialogue should appear within a single paragraph. If two or more speakers are conversing, it's important to start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes. You don't have to have a tag for each speaker, but make sure the context makes it clear who is speaking each time. Don't rely on published fiction to guide how often you need to identify the speaker, though. I have encountered many published works in which the author fails to indicate the current speaker often enough. If you find yourself backtracking to try to figure out who is speaking, the author has fallen short in his or her responsibility!
If the same character speaks more than one dialogue fragment, they can go into the same paragraph, as long as the fragments express a single overall idea. If the second dialogue piece is a separate thought, it should begin a new paragraph. In this case you will certainly want a tag to make it clear you are not alternating speakers.
In this article, I have used verbs in tags other than said or asked. In practice you should not seek variety in the tag verbs. Tags using said or asked virtually disappear to the reader, and that is desirable. Tag verbs are syntacic glue, like articles and conjunctions, so there is no real need to vary them. Trung too hard not to repeat said or asked invariably backfires and sticks out like the proverbial throbbing swollen thumb.
Another of our members, Terry Ervin (TWErvin2), has written an article on dialogue from a more contextual perspective: Dialogue Basics.