Tuesday, June 24, 2014

21 The Real Meaning of Show Don't Tell -- And a Giveaway of Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL

Yesterday, I sent Book Two to my editor. (Cue confetti and panic!) Have I mentioned that I've never written a sequel before? Trust me, it's its own peculiar form of torture.

After sending the draft to my agent last week, he called the next day and gave me the 'speed things up at the beginning news.' I knew it was dialogue-heavy, so I was expecting that, and I'd been making notes to myself about how to do that for weeks. But that didn't change the fact that now I had to massively reconstruct the first few chapters because I'd lapsed into what I'd like to call sequel syndrome. I recapped way too much of Book One, in the beginning of Book Two. Ugh.

Fixing the problem involved writing four new scenes and deleting enough word count from the others to make it come out a wash. That gave me a chance to think about the real meaning of the advice we writers hear so often,  'show don't tell.'

And I had an epiphany. Total V-8 moment!

Show over tell begins at the scene level--not at the sentence or paragraph level.

To show a piece of information to our readers, we need to:

  • Choose the action that would best demonstrate the information. I have ghost-hunters trespassing on the plantation. Now, I can have someone tell my main character they are there and why it's a problem. My character can be surprised and irate--and all of that can happen in dialogue and make readers yawn. On the other hand, if I let my character see the ghost-hunters, she can react to them more organically. But that means that I have to build a scene that puts her in a position to see them, at the time in the story when it will most matter to her.
  • Make the action result in change. Seeing the ghost-hunters can leave my main character mad, but it must also create an effect. If she sees the ghost hunters, but also sees the hand-lettered sign on yellow legal paper that says the plantation is closed to the public until further notice, seeing the ghost-hunters matters more to her and to the reader. 
  • Make the information matter. Saying the information matters doesn't make it matter, not to the character or the reader. Why does it matter? Having the plantation closed to the public matters because it interferes with my characters goals. It prevents her her from accomplishing what she needs to accomplish, and so now she isn't reacting just to the information, but to something deeper and more meaningful. The more meaningful I can make that, the more I can demonstrate a connection between the character and the information, the more the reader will care. 
  • Make the character interact with the information to generate emotion. That's key to storytelling--every action needs a reaction. But the reaction should be direct. If the character is troubled by what appears to be a ghost-hunter, she can snap at the person delivering the news, and that can be interesting. But what if she confronts the supposed ghost-hunter instead? Or goes out of her way to avoid him? Or does something to get rid of him? The possibilities are endless, but each of those reaction says something different about who my character is and how she feels. Whatever her reaction, even if it's a small part of the story, I want to choose the scenario that most vividly displays my character's feelings.
Obviously, creating a scene around a revelation or piece of information isn't going to work in every instance. As writers though, it's our job to try to make it work as frequently as possible. If that doesn't deserve a whole scene, then we need to spend time thinking how we can make the information as interesting as possible.
  • Make it visual. If the character has a headache, I can have her rub her head and fumble for aspirin. 
  • Check the timing. If the character realizes something, I can have her act on that information at the most inconvenient time possible.  
  • Tell it in the most interesting way. I can reveal character emotion and generate reader response by using deep point of view to put the reader inside the character's head, describing what they hear, see, smell, touch in a way that makes the reaction visible and visceral.
A Common Misconception

It's easy to mistake dialogue for showing, simply because we can visualize the people talking. But visualizing and experiencing are two different things.

We experience an activity. We witness a dialogue.

Choose Carefully

My aha! moment yesterday was the idea that for every piece of information I need to reveal, I need to create the most meaningful way and time and place to show it.

Between now and when I get my manuscript back from my editor, I plan to think about how I can dig show my book unfolding at an even deeper level.

What about you? Can you think of a scene you've read or written that revealed something in a truly memorable way?


Before I Fall

Paperback Giveaway
With this stunning debut novel, New York Times bestselling author Lauren Oliver emerged as one of today's foremost authors of young adult fiction. Like Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why and Gayle Forman's If I Stay, Before I Fall raises thought-provoking questions about love, death, and how one person's life can affect so many others.

For popular high school senior Samantha Kingston, February 12—"Cupid Day"—should be one big party, a day of valentines and roses and the privileges that come with being at the top of the social pyramid. And it is…until she dies in a terrible accident that night.

However, she still wakes up the next morning. In fact, Sam lives the last day of her life seven times, until she realizes that by making even the slightest changes, she may hold more power than she ever imagined.


Winner C. Condomaros 

If I Stay

by Gayle Forman


Speak; Reprint edition

Released 6/10/2014

The critically acclaimed, bestselling novel from Gayle Forman, author of Where She WentJust One Day, and the forthcoming Just One Year

On a day that started like any other,

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, admiring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. In an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the only decision she has left. It is the most important decision she'll ever make.

Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting, and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving.

Purchase If I Stay at Amazon

Purchase If I Stay at IndieBound

View If I Stay on Goodreads

* * * *

Where She Went

by Gayle Forman


Speak; Reprint edition

Released 6/15/2014

It's been three years since the devastating accident . . . three years since Mia walked out of Adam's life forever.
Now living on opposite coasts, Mia is Juilliard's rising star and Adam is LA tabloid fodder, thanks to his new rock star status and celebrity girlfriend. When Adam gets stuck in New York by himself, chance brings the couple together again, for one last night. As they explore the city that has become Mia's home, Adam and Mia revisit the past and open their hearts to the future - and each other.

Told from Adam's point of view in the spare, lyrical prose that defined If I StayWhere She Went explores the devastation of grief, the promise of new hope, and the flame of rekindled romance.

Purchase Where She Went at Amazon

Purchase Where She Went at IndieBound

View Where She Went on Goodreads

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  1. This is an awesome post!

    I love how your advice makes things more vivid and immediate and it's advice I'll definitely take to heart.

    Haven't rewritten with this in mind but I will!

    Thank you :)

  2. Before I Fall is one of my all time favorite books. If you haven't read it yet, start now. It's like the movie Groundhog Day but it takes on a lot of serious issues dealing with high school and friends. Everything isn't wrapped in a bow at the end but it's perfect.

  3. That's a really good way of explaining the show vs. tell concept!

  4. I am going to have to print out this post. Absolutely essential advice for writers. I will be posting this one on my blog. Thanks!

  5. Fabulous, informative, and inspiring post! Thank you!

  6. SO helpful, thanks! Bookmarked it :)

  7. This is a fabulous tip for bookmarking. The whole "show not tell" can be such a bugger to deal with. Thanks for sharing :-)

  8. This is a very helpful post, Thank you!

  9. Very good post. thanks for the insights. Will reread before I start writing tomorrow and will share with my writing students.

  10. ...Make the action RESULT in change... That is profound. So funny, once I get writing, how I forget that point sometimes. LOL Fabulous post!

  11. I don't write but I do read! I really hate it when books "info dump". I don't want to be told everything by a character, I want to discover it myself!

  12. I love the way you explained this, Martina. Anything to help focus on key elements while plotting and writing is a good thing! :D

    And my brain is way too fuzzy for anything to spring to mind, though I know I've read MANY memorable scenes and hope to write them, too :)

  13. It can be tough to grasp the idea of show vs tell but this is a great example.

  14. Great tips, Martina. And it's always so hard to start and sequel and get it right.

  15. Awesome tips for digging deeper while I write. I have used objects that have sentimental meaning to my characters to help show the reader what's happening inside my character's head. Thanks for the giveaway--I love Lauren Oliver's books.

  16. Great points! I think I need to work on the "does this scene make a diff in the rest of the novel, or to the character" part sometimes. Not just a one-time reaction, but does it change the course of the novel type of thing.

    I haven't read BEFORE I FALL yet! and I really want to!! :)

  17. Thanks all! I'm glad it made sense to you and wasn't just one of those things that sounds okay in my head and doesn't translate. : ) (The inside of my head can be a very, very strange place LOL!)


  18. I've been rewriting some scenes in my WIP with the goal of better putting my main characters amid action that matters, but the way you break it down is very helpful. Thanks so much!

  19. Congrats on getting your book turned in. I've started working on another revision of my novel where I focus on really getting in my characters head, so this was helpful advice!

  20. I've read Elsewhere and I thought it was memorable


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