Monday, July 22, 2013

33 Susan Dennard on Showing versus Telling

We are so thrilled to have Susan Dennard on the blog today. Not only is Susan a fabulous author, but she's also an amazing person with unmatched generosity. Recently, she judged our Pitch+250 Contest and went above and beyond in her finalist critique. She's also mentoring our July 1st Five Pages Workshop, where again, she is going above and beyond in her notes for the writers' workshop participants. She's written a wonderful craft of writing post on Showing vs. Telling and included a helpful writing exercise.


Show Your Character’s Backstory, Don’t Tell It


"Show, don't tell." I know everyone has heard that phrase a thousand times. At least a thousand times, right? And yet, though we all know we should show our story instead of tell it, ye olde maxim is WAY easier said than done.

Trust me: I still make this mistake, and I know I’m not the only author who finds myself falling into the Telling Trap. I seem to be especially guilty when I’m trying to provide backstory—and I’m even more guilty when I’m writing a first draft.

But that’s the beauty of revisions, no? We can rip out all our telling and weave it back into the story as beautiful, seamless showing.

In this post, I want to show you how to spot telling in your WIP—and then I want to show you how to work the information back in as showing. I’m going to use a writing example, but bear with me. I tend on the side of verbosity.

So let’s say we have a story, and in it our MC is named Emily. In this scene I’m going to use for our example, Emily is in a car at nighttime. She’s with her ex-best friend, Carrie, who has somehow—despite the bad blood between them—convinced Emily to abandon the end of her school’s play rehearsal. Carrie needs to take Emily somewhere to show her something super important…

Carrie’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel—she tended to do that whenever she was nervous. “You should call your sister, Em.” She threw me a meaningful glance. “The last thing I need is another one of her freak-outs ‘cos you’re late home from rehearsal.”

“Right.” I wriggled my phone from my pocket. My older sister, Kelly, had a tendency to Go Super Crazy whenever I was late—be it late from school, late to school, late from rehearsal, late to wake up. You name it. But I couldn’t really blame Kelly—not since she’d played mom to me for as long as I could remember.

But my fingers paused on the call button. What could I say? Kelly would NOT approve of me being with Carrie.

I had known Carrie since I was six years old (she was six and a half at that time—and she never let me forget it). She had moved into the house across the street, and though I had decided I liked her hair right away (those red ringlets continued to amaze me), it was our shared adoration for all things My Little Pony that had pretty much solidified our Best Friends Forever status.

But forever ain’t forever when your BFF makes new friends—and those friends claim to be witches and have a ton of piercings. Starting three months ago, Carrie started ditching me to be in that weird “coven.”


Who can spot all the telling? There was a LOT of it, and I urge you to try to find it. The more practice you have, the easier it gets.

Now keep in mind that though nothing was mechanically bad about that passage, you might have noticed there was 1) info-dumping (which is boring), and 2) no emotional charge to the scene.

That’s one of the “side-effects” of telling: a lack of emotional resonance. When you TELL the reader something, you ultimately fail to SHOW the reader why that information matters. And how do you that SHOW something matters? By SHOWING the characters' emotional reactions to information.

Now I’m going to paste this same passage and highlight each of the spots that are telling…


Carrie’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel—she tended to do that whenever she was nervous. “You should call your sister, Em.” She threw me a meaningful glance. “The last thing I need is another one of her freak-outs ‘cos you’re late home from rehearsal.”

“Right.” I wriggled my phone from my pocket. My older sister, Kelly, had a tendency to Go Super Crazy whenever I was late—be that late from school, late to school, late from rehearsal, late to wake up. You name it. But I couldn’t really blame Kelly—not since she’d played mom to me for as long as I could remember.

But my fingers paused on the call button. What could I say? Kelly would NOT approve of me being with Carrie.

I had known Carrie since I was six years old (she was six and a half—and she never lets me forget it). She had moved into the house across the street, and though I decided I liked her hair right away (those red ringlets continue to amaze me), it was our shared adoration for all things My Little Pony that had pretty much solidified our Best Friends Forever status.

But forever ain’t forever when your BFF makes new friends—and those friends claim to be witches and have a ton of piercings. Starting three months, Carrie started ditching me to be in that weird “coven.”


Did you spot all that on your own? I bet you did. ;) Kudos.

Now we want to rework this passage. Specifically, we want to weave in the highlighted parts as SHOWING. But to do that effectively, we need to break down the critical information from the highlighted sections.

Think about it this way, because I probably don’t need to show everything I told above, I should figure out what I DO need to show—then I can more easily weave those bits of info into the narrative.

So here’s what I’ve decided I want to give the reader:

• Carrie squeezes the steering wheel when she’s nervous
• Carrie is red-headed
• Carrie and Em became best friends at age 6. They liked My Little Ponies
• Carrie used to be Em’s best friend, but then she joined a witch coven and totally changed
• Em’s sister, Kelly, raised Em and now doesn’t like Carrie

After a bit of wand-waving (read: lots of thinking and reworking and trial-and-error), I managed to rewrite the scene to incorporate the critical information in a showing fashion. Here’s what I came up with:


Carrie leaned forward, a red ringlet zinging free from her severely—almost painfully—tight bun. “You should call your sister, Em.” She threw me a meaningful glance. “The last thing I need is another one of her freak-outs ‘cos you’re late from rehearsal.”

For half a second, I just gaped at her. But then anger roared to life. “You know what, Carrie? Eff you.” I scowled as I wriggled my phone from my pocket. “You know damned well why Kelly’s so high-strung—and hell, you’d freak out too if you had to raise your brothers all by your lonesome.”

Carrie didn’t answer. She just squeezed tighter at the steering wheel. Its vinyl was almost worn down to the plastic now—she must have done a lot of nervous wringing since the last time I was in her car three months ago.

The car was a lot messier since then too—trash was everywhere. Plus, the seats had that old man stench of stale cigarettes. Yet for some reason, the My Little Pony charm I’d given Carrie when we first declared our Best Friends Forever Status at age six, was still dangling around the crooked rearview mirror.

And that just made me angrier. “You know what else, Carrie?” I bared my teeth at her, knowing they gleamed in the glow from my iPhone’s screen. “Kelly also wouldn’t freak out so much if you hadn’t joined a flippin’ witch coven and gotten all those disgusting piercings. I mean, Jesus, Can you really blame my sister if she doesn’t want me to turn into you?” I gave a strangled growl and shoved my phone right back into my pockets. I’d call Kelly later, when I wasn’t so pissed off and I could conjure a decent lie for my tardiness.


Phew. I think I managed to incorporate all the important information there. More importantly, though, I hope I managed to show how Emily feels about each piece of important information—how bitter she is about Carrie leaving her for a witch coven, how defensive she feels about her sister, and how she still knows Carrie even if they’ve been apart for three months.

But what do you think? Is that second version better or do you actually prefer the first? OR, feel free to try to tweak the first version on your own! I would love to see what you all come up with! Remember, there’s no single, perfect way to fix telling!

Also, keep in mind that backstory, info-dumping, and emotional “flatness” are totally normal for first drafts—at least for mine! I think a huge part of drafting is simply figuring out who our characters are, and that requires us to pour out their histories onto the page. As we uncover the meat of our characters, we start to realize how they feel and why. Thus, when we revise, we can layer in all the needed showing and emotions.

So while I wholeheartedly approve of telling in your first drafts, I definitely don’t approve of it when you’re handing it off to your critique partner/agent/editor. ;)

Now, you guys tell me: Do you ever catch yourself telling too much? How do you SHOW instead of TELL backstory? Or do you have any questions about what I’ve shared here?




About the Author

Susan Dennard is a writer turned marine biologist turned writer again. A Darkness Strange and Lovely (7/23/13, HarperTeen) is the sequel to her Gothic debut, Something Strange and Deadly. Among the traits she shares with her heroine Eleanor are a weakness for Shakespeare quotes, a healthy appetite for baked goods, and an insatiable curiosity. Sadly, Susan does not get to wear a corset or wave a parasol on a daily basis.

Visit Susan's website
Check out Susan's blog
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About the Book

With her brother dead and her mother insane, Eleanor Fitt is alone. Even the Spirit-Hunters—Joseph, Jie, and the handsome Daniel—have fled to Paris. So when Eleanor hears the vicious barking of hounds and see haunting yellow eyes, she fears that the Dead, and the necromancer Marcus, are after her.

To escape, Eleanor boards a steamer bound for France. There she meets Oliver, a young man who claims to have known her brother. But Oliver harbors a dangerous secret involving necromancy and black magic that entices Eleanor beyond words. If she can resist him, she’ll be fine. But when she arrives in Paris, she finds that the Dead have taken over, and there’s a whole new evil lurking. And she is forced to make a deadly decision that will go against everything the Spirit-Hunters stand for.

In Paris, there’s a price for this darkness strange and lovely,
and it may have Eleanor paying with her life.


Perfect for readers Libba Bray’s The Diviners and Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel series, this spellbinding sequel to Something Strange and Deadly delivers a mix of intrigue, supernatural forces, intense romance, and revenge, all set against the enchanting backdrop of nineteenth-century Paris.

Purchase A Darkness Strange and Lovely on Amazon
Purchase A Darkness Strange and Lovely on Indiebound
View A Darkness Strange and Lovely on Goodreads






33 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great example of showing vs. telling. I especially loved how you weaved in the Little Pony charm and their childhood friendship backstory.

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    1. Thanks!! I have to admit it took me a LOT longer to rewrite that passage into a more-showing-version than I expected--but I guess that's the life of a writer! Write, rewrite (maybe a million times, if you're me), revise, rinse, repeat. ;)

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  2. Aaah Thanks for this! I see a lot of people post examples that are just over the top obvious. So it was good to see something that wasn't overexaggerated as an example.
    You've been such a great mentor for the 1st five. Seriously, thank you!

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    1. First off, you're so welcome, Ellie! I totally love your enthusiasm, and if you're ever interested in one-on-one work, email me. ;)

      Second off, I'm glad the example helped! I was actually reading this just now (I wrote it ages ago) and thinking, that first example isn't too bad! It's got some voice and action...but oh. Yeah. Okay. I see what I did there. ;)

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    2. Ah! Thanks so much! I'm super interested! This workshop and especially your notes have given me SUCH a boost. Now I must tare apart the rest of my manuscript while thinking "What would Sooz do?" (In a total non-creepy and obsesive way of course :P )

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  3. I love to see the sprinklings of backstory sprinkled in. You don't know what happened to you until you've read all needed info and then you think, wow, that didn't hurt at all.

    I need to do that better.

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    1. I honestly do so much telling in my first drafts. And second drafts...and probably final drafts too, but it's something I have lately been working REALLY hard to improve. So, basically, I too need to do that better. ;)

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  4. Great example! Loved seeing the before and after.

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  5. Susan,

    Thank you so much for this amazing piece! You managed to really show us the difference as well as explaining it beautifully :D. Seriously, you are a fantastic teacher. I've seen that all month at the First Five Pages workshop, and this is just another perfect example! I LOVE this post!

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    1. Aw, thanks, Martina! I really *want* to be a good teacher, and I really LOVE helping people learn to write and learn to actively improve their writing--so it's really nice to hear you think I'm doin' okay at that.

      Also, thank you so very much for inviting me to participate as a mentor. It's been really fun and educational for me. :)

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  6. Great way to demo showing as opposed to telling. Definitely liked the 2nd one better - the little pony charm was perfect! I've gotten much better at sprinkling in backstory. Sometimes I have to go write a backstory scene just to get it out of my system and then I can sprinkle and not dump! :)

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    1. Ha! I know about the "get-the-backstory-out-of-my-system" thing! I let myself write the long pages of backstory in a first draft, but then I turn my laser eyes on during revisions and cut it all out--and even move it into a specific word doc for later weaving back in. :D

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  7. This is a great post. I'm still working the "Show, Don't Tell" bugs out of my story. Your demo is really going to help me. Thank you. :)

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    1. Hey, I still have those bugs too. It's totally normal no matter what stage your in. :D Happy writing!

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  8. Great demo, terrific blog. Going to link to this for my writing students. There's nothing like a good example to really show writers what to do--not just talk about it!

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    1. Yes! I always think an example is the best/easiest way to learn. Then practicing a LOT helps after that. ;) Thanks for stoping by!! :D

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  9. A few days ago, I wrote something about my protagonist clutching something, like she normally did out of fear- and I wondered if that wasn't telling. So felt really connected to this piece because you highlighted a very similar example! Thanks for sharing :)

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    1. It's super cool this resonated with you on such a specific level. I definitely like to work in quirks as a *shown* action (though inevitably my first drafts are NOT that way and I have to rewrite them accordingly!).

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  10. Thanks for this example, and for mentoring me in this month's first five pages, Susan. As you well know, I've struggled with show v. tell, but your suggestion here to pull out what's important and weave it back in might just help me towards figuring it out. I appreciate all the time you've taken to help me towards bringing my opening to life, though I think it's going to take this neophyte many more drafts! :P

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    1. I just skimmed your 5 pages for this week, but I can tell you've done some great work on it. You've REALLY come a long way in the past two weeks, and if you ever, ever have questions or need help, just email me--susan at susandennard dot com. I appreciate people who listen and really *try* to incorporate/internalize new writing skills. :)

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    2. Thank you so much! I will certainly take you up on it and appreciate learning from someone who knows what she's talking about. :0)

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  11. Thank you for sharing this post!! I'm new to this blog and so glad to have read this one! It really dug in a little deeper and gave me the best examples I've seen to date on how to correct the telling issue (you actually showed how to show - ha!). I also really appreciate the reminder that a first draft is just a great place to see what the characters do as I tend to get hung up on editing a little too early. Thanks again and I'm excited to get familiar with your work!
    Christy

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    1. You're so welcome--and I'm so glad it helped you! I always learn best from examples, so I always try to *show* them. ;)

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  12. The same thing holds true with dialog, I think. Every few sentences of "info dump" there needs to be some action happening in real-time to the characters involved. Study the dialog in the Harry Potter books when great reams of information is shared between two or more characters. I'd give examples but I'm not nearly as good at it as JKR.

    Your example of weaving information in with action is along the same lines. Don't treat your readers as though they have to have EVERY LITTLE THING spelled out. Drop the information in gradually while keeping them involved in the story. Well done.

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    1. You're definitely right on the dialogue point! I always do that in first drafts too--have the characters just sitting and chatting and sharing critical info...rather than weaving that dialogue into a scene where they're DOING something. :P Thank goodness for revisions!

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  13. Such a great example. I constantly need to be reminded of this. Telling keeps sneaking in! I love how you showed the little pony charm.

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    1. Telling always sneaks in for me too--you're so not alone in that! But hey--that's what revisions are for, right? ;)

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  14. It's wonderful to see a published author so happy to help others! Thank you so much for this helpful piece.

    I personally would have left in the sentence: "Carrie’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel—she tended to do that whenever she was nervous". I would have then put in the description of the wear-and-tear of said steering wheel, which the narrator had not seen in three months. That way, it would be immediately obvious that the two were in a car. I don't like not being able to picture the setting quickly. I just liked the line because it told so much so fast - the setting, that Carrie was nervous, that Em knew Carrie well. I love multi-tasking sentences.

    It was fun playing around with the scene.

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    1. Nice! You definitely make a good point there about keeping that one line--and that's the cool thing about writing, huh? Totally subjective and no right or wrong way! It's all about what you're trying to convey. :)

      Thanks for the comment and for playing around with the example passage--I'm not sure anyone else did! So yay! :D

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  15. So I just saw this Susan, and WOW! I have to constantly tell myself to show and not tell, because telling is so much easier (and less time consuming). But showing provides a much more enjoyable reading experience, and your examples definitely helped!

    Thanks for this post and thanks for being SUCH an awesome mentor for the First Five Pages Workshop. Really, your critiques have been amazing.

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    1. You're so very welcome, Cassie! It was a real pleasure to read your pages, and if you ever need help or have questions, PLEASE don't hesitate to email me! :D

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