- Summarizing action or dialog that has already been shown
- Condensing time in which the events that happened during that time period do not significantly contribute to the plot, conflict or character arc
- Condensing day-to-day or predictable activities that don’t contribute to the plot, conflict or character arc
- Filling in back story
- Filling in explanations (history, technical points, etc.)
- Showing creates emotional hits for the reader
- Telling conveys little or no emotion
It’s a lot harder to recognize a “tell” when the words go something like, “He looked into her eyes and fell in love.” I mean, “looked into her eyes” does indicate an action that happens at a precise moment. So it’s got to be showing, right? All right, maybe you want to hear what colour eyes she had. Emerald eyes. There!
But what about “fell in love”? Here we have a crucial moment in the plot of every romance, and our author has left that moment to show something else (the next sentence of the story) without giving the reader any idea of the falling in love process. What was it that stimulated the falling in love? And what was his body doing while his emotions were transforming?
Another example, from my YA:
Tell (the original version):
I got there a second before the bell rang.
Show (my rewrites):
I raced up three flights of stairs, taking them two at a time, my schoolbag banging at my back. Dodging around a locker someone had left open, I jerked open the classroom door.
The room buzzed with what-did-you-do-after-school-yesterday chatter. Mr. Rebus was writing on the board.
My hands and face slick with sweat, I slid into my seat. My heart pumped so loudly in my ears I hardly heard the bell.
So how do you turn the “tells” into “shows”?
This could be a workshop unto itself. However, here’s a quick overview.
First, look at the action. Have you compressed it? Both hacking through the enemy and getting there before the bell rang are compressions of a series of moves. Start by decompression, breaking a bigger action down into its component parts.
Then take those actions and put them into what Dwight Swain calls Motivation Reaction Units.
Motivation Reaction units are the core of how we operate as human beings. It’s the concept that goes way back to Pavlov and Skinner, that a stimulus causes a response. In other words, we don’t just act, we react to something that we’ve just experienced (seen, heard, smelled, felt, etc.)
Successful writers, according to Swain, structure the action and emotions in every scene as a series of Motivation Reaction Units.
The first part of every Motivation Reaction Unit is a stimulus.
Newton’s first law of thermodynamics says “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” That goes for psychology, as well. Every stimulus has a response. Or, to put it inversely, every response MUST have a stimulus.
So if you’ve got your heroine doing, thinking or feeling something, start with “what caused her to do/think/feel that way?”
Next you need the reaction. If it’s a simple stimulus, all it may need is a simple response, as in the following dialog run from my WIP, Exiled in the Sweet Land of Liberty:
“What’s your name?”
That was the first draft of that little bit of dialog. Simple stimulus and simple response. As I rewrote the passage, though, I decided that I needed to add a little tension, which I could do through adding my heroine’s thoughts (she’s being challenged).
“What’s your name?”
No use lying. “Sophie Jaworski.”
Now there are two kinds of reaction. One is verbal – the answers to his questions. The other is internal – my heroine’s thoughts. There can, in fact, be several kinds of reaction, strung one after another. Here’s the falling in love scene in my YA WIP. It’s set in 1956. The hero’s been singing along to a love song on the Jukebox.
He looks in my eyes as he sings. His voice has a husky catch. It wraps around me like the old horse blanket in my grandfather’s barn in Poland, full of prickly hairs that scratch my skin, but warm, body-soothing warm.
The first reaction is Visceral. Sophie blushes. A visceral reaction is something the character can’t control. It’s an automatic physical reaction to a stimulus, such as the heart beating faster, palms sweating, stomach getting queasy, etc.
The second reaction is an automatic thought or action. “I shift my eyes away”. Again, the character has little control over this. It just happens. Sometimes it can be a bit of dialog that’s an automatic response, such as “Ouch!”
Next, we get a rational thought. In Sophie’s case this is her wishing that Mr. Ellis, who owns the soda fountain, would come over, disturb them and get her off the hook of having to respond to Joseph.
Lastly, there’s the rational action (which can also be a rational piece of dialog.) At this point, the character has control over his/her action (or dialog). He/she chooses to do what comes next (the action or dialog.) Sophie chooses to ignore what she really wants to do.
There’s a pattern here, and it’s crucial to all responses. It goes:
Automatic physical response – automatic thought. Controlled thought. Controlled action.
To help myself remember this pattern, I broke it down as follows:
The big picture is: Involuntary first—then voluntary.
No use lying. “Sophie Jaworski.”
Checklist for Show and Tell Level:
- Do you want to have the information convey emotional impact?
Yes – needs to be shown
- Can the event/activity be broken down into smaller steps or stages?
- List the steps/stages
- Are the steps/stages organized into Motivation Reaction Units?
- Are the reactions organized into the response pattern?