Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Self-Editing Checklist: Show and Tell (plus a giveaway!)

No, we're not talking about that period in elementary school when Freckle-Faced Freddy brought his ant farm and let the little buggers loose.

But this topic can be just as problematic for a writer, can't it?

Point #6 in my self-editing checklist is all about Show and Tell. (For the previous five posts, click here.)

When analyzing your scenes for Show and Tell, here are a couple key points to watch out for:

a) Are you naming your characters' emotions? What sort of picture does this sentence evoke? "She gave me a scared look." Pretty vague, right? How about this..."A sheen of sweat sparkled above her lip and her eyes bulged." Gives a much clearer picture. If you see emotion words like "scared", "happy", "worried", "angry", etc., carve them out and show them through action and dialogue instead.

b) Are you relying on narrative summary rather than showing the scene as it plays out? Take note that sometimes narrative summary is okay, but in most cases, you want your book to contain scenes filled with movement and action (and action doesn't necessarily have to be shoot-em-up duke-it-out type of stuff).

Here's an example of narrative summary used in the wrong way, glossing over a key moment that should be shown instead.

Her long-lost son opened a folder and asked about her three names. She struggled through memories of her childhood and started to explain.

Here's the actual excerpt from Patti Lacy's powerful book The Rhythm of Secrets, which shows the main character's emotions beautifully.

"Thanks for meeting me." The folder flopped open. A sheet of paper was removed. "If you don't mind, I have a few questions for you."

His inscrutable expression muted her soul's music. She eyed the folder warily.

The paper shook as he shoved it close. "According sources, you are both Sheila Franklin and Sylvia Allen." His shoulders grazed the leather booth when he leaned back. Ice glazed his eyes. "If that's true, then who is Sheba Alexander?"

The question tore open a lockbox of memories. A blazing fire. A one-armed prostitute. Maman. Papa. A thirteen-year-old girl who thought she could conquer the world, thanks to her parents' gift of that name she'd had to abandon. A name she just might have to reclaim...

"Sheba Alexander was..." Words fought to escape her cottony mouth. "...a silly girl." A very foolish teenager. She swallowed hard. How could she explain things to a man she'd just met, even if he were her son?

Gripping, right? This is a big-time moment in the novel, and Patti didn't hold back at all. She showed the emotions of both characters through action and dialogue, sweeping the reader away in the story.

Your homework for the next two weeks, should you choose to accept it: Search through your scenes for naming of emotions and work on ways to portray those emotions through action and dialogue. Look for large chunks of narrative summary and determine whether they should be shown in greater detail or even added as extra scenes. If they're irrelevant to the story or keep it from moving forward, don't be afraid to cut them.

Bonus giveaway this week! Patti Lacy has graciously offered a copy of The Rhythm of Secrets for one lucky commenter! We'll announce the winner in our weekend edition.

What's been your biggest challenge in the show-and-tell game of writing? What's the most valuable resource you've used in learning how to show rather than tell?

*Ants photo by Simon Howden /


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

My biggest challenge is to see it in my own writing. I'm getting better at it, but I usually need another pair of eyes to help me find my telling. :)

I can't think of any one resource. I always love Camy Tang and Kaye Dacus's articles on writing. They are always helpful and have good examples of what they are teaching.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Yes, I agree with Sherrinda. My biggest challenge is noticing it in my own writing. But I think as I notice it in other's writing it makes me more aware of cases where I do it in my own.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Cool exerpt and point. Biggest challenge is when to nail it through a creative description and when to use dialogue. I play with these a great deal each time I edit.
~ Wendy

Keli Gwyn said...

When I first began writing I did a lot of telling. After I learned about the value of showing, I changed things, doing my utmost to show and not tell.

Imagine my surprise when one of my astute CPs said I needed to tell the reader more about what was happening instead of just showing it.

I took a hard look at the passages she'd pointed out. She was right. I'd gone too far in the opposite direction and needed to add some information in order for the reader to understand the motivations behind the actions.

This taught me that there is a balance between showing and telling, one learned through experience. For rule-obsessed me, this was an important breakthrough.

Angie Dicken said...

Great tips! I have such a hard time with giving my emotions names instead of showing how they would look on the character. I am constantly working at showing rather than telling...definitely not a natural quality of mine!

Patti Lacy said...

Ooh, fun comments! I will have to post this at ACFW Midwest and the book club.

Thank you for hosting me and my characters, and not as the students sitting on dunce chairs!

Ralene said...

Great tips! I think I've learned most of my show/tell just from reading various books on the craft. Almost every one addresses it, and it's like continually getting whopped upside the head with it. It eventually sticks. lol...

Linda Glaz said...

I'm with everyone else. I can see it in others' work, but have trouble seeing it in my own. Maybe because I know in my head what is happening.

Beth K. Vogt said...

My biggest challenge in the "Show, Don't Tell" challenge is to slow down. I fall into telling when I'm rushing a scene. I need to take my time and let the scene unfold. Patti Lacy's excerpt was such a vivid scene. Thanks for the great example of showing instead of telling.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Sherrinda, Excellent resources in Camy and Kaye! Both have a knack for explaining things in everyday language. :)

Julia, Sometimes it helps to take a step back from our own work, doesn't it? I'm a huge student of other authors' writing. :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wendy, So true! That's what I love about Patti's excerpt. She's got dialogue, action cues, internal "gut" reactions, and thoughts all blended together to really make the reader feel the moment. Masterful. :)

Keli, What an excellent point! (which is no surprise considering the source) :) I think so much is said about showing because beginning authors tell so much, but then it's easy to swing to the other side of the scale, just like you found yourself doing. Thank the Lord for wise CPs! :)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Angie, Naming emotions is a toughie, for sure. I've seen it used effectively if it's sparse, but the key is to avoid overkill and have a really good reason WHY it needs to be named. :)

Patti, So glad to highlight your beautiful writing. Thanks for popping in!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Ralene, You're so right about getting whopped upside the head. I'm like you...after lots and lots of repetition, it does start to sink in. :)

Linda, Good point! As authors, we know all the backstory and the emotions behind what we're writing. The tricky part is portraying it so the reader gets it too. :)

Beth, I'm notorious for telling in my first draft, too. In fact, I sometimes purposely tell because I'm stuck mentally and need to just move on. That's when I resort to narrative summary, and then I pray that the lightbulb will come on when I return to that scene later for edits. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I agree with of my greatest problems is rushing the scene. "Must keep it moving" we're told..."must liven the pace". Consequently I end up short changing beautiful scenes like the example you showed from Patti's book. Wow. I could see the scene happening.
Patti, if you still check in before the end of the day, how can we tell if we need to slow a scene down yet liven it like you showed, or simply speed it up to keep action moving? I guess I need to know how to see the difference in a WIP.

Patti Lacy said...

Get good crit partners:)
In this very book, I overwrote many scenes and relied also on Kregel's wonderful editor, Dawn Anderson, who reminded me that intense scenes need a quick pace especially when paired with intense action (which doesn't happen in this scene). I also try to follow the Roy Qualls rule. Roy is my brother, both a pilot and a writer, and he has read all the how-to books and added his own footnote. Try to get dialogue beats (meaning a phrase, a sentence, or a segment) to FIVE words. It doesn't always happen, but cut, cut, cut! Get purely to the meat.
Why are you here right now in this restaurant?
Why are you here? four words!!)
It also frees you up to use action bites interspersed with your taut words.

HA! I just reread the excerpt from Rhythms and saw SEVERAL places where things could've easily been intensified.
Instead of "I have a few questions for you."
"I have some questions."

I won't point out the others. Hey, we writers can only splatter ink on so many of our published words!

Sarah Forgrave said...

Mary, Great question! And what a great answer from Patti! I'm tucking that little nugget for my own writing. :)

Pepper said...

Okay- it's a Sarah post.
Time to put on my big-girl panties.
Great post, Sarah - but this editing thing always hits me where it hurts. I'm with so many of the other gals who can point it out in others, but many times overlook it in my own. Tell is needed sometimes (like Keli mentioned), but I seem to like it more than necessary.
Thanks for the pinpointing tips. One tip I use for myself is: when I start to skim the paragraph, check for telling.

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Pepper, Now you sound like my son (who's almost graduated from potty training)... "Mommy, do you wear big-girl underwear?" Yes, yes, I do. :)

Great tip about skimming paragraphs! I catch myself doing that too, and that's usually a sign that something isn't working in the scene. Of course, it can also be a sign that I've read it one hundred too many times. :)

Pegg Thomas said...

Best resource for me is critique partners, they don't let you get away with anything. I struggle most with eyebrows. They are so wonderfully expressive and so woefully overdone. The same with sighs. *sigh*

Sarah Forgrave said...

LOL, Pegg, I'm with you on the sighs. I also tend to jerk my characters' hearts all over their bodies, too. :) Thanks for stopping by!

Karen A Wyle said...

Right now, I'm stuck on a place where I have a less hackneyed "tell" phrase and can only think of cliches to "show" the emotion in question. Sigh.

Sarah Forgrave said...

KAWyle, Ack! Cliches are for the birds. Avoid them like the plague. Or you'll end up hitting your head against the wall and grinding your teeth in frustration.

Okay, I'll stop with the cliches...

Thanks for stopping by! :)