Monday, May 30, 2011

Layering a Scene -- Show, Don't Tell

We’ve been working at layering a scene, digging through the layers of a scene, like an archaeologist working on a tell in Israel. The first couple of blogs on this subject were about structure and how the scene related to the plot. Now we’re getting into the scene itself and how you actually tell the story.

 The next layer is what I call the “Show and Tell Level”. We’ve all been told by our critique partners, our workshop facilitators and all those how to write books, “Show, don’t tell.” But what exactly does that mean?

Telling skims the surface. Showing immerses the reader in all the minutia of the moment, gives it meaning, and weaves a rich, sensual texture full of emotion.

 It’s not always necessary to show. There are times when telling is more effective. Some of these are:
  • 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.) 
How do you choose which to use? Start by deciding how much emotional impact you want the information to convey.
  • Showing creates emotional hits for the reader
  • Telling conveys little or no emotion
It’s easy to see a “tell” when the manuscript says something like, “He hacked through an army of enemies and finally reached her.” We have no idea what the army looked like, what the hacking looked like, where she was and what she was doing (or feeling) and how he felt as he struggled to save the heroine. This is telling at its most blatant. It turns a whole scene, or even a chapter, into one sentence. The reader experiences little emotion, except perhaps a bit of relief if the reader has been worried about the heroine.

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?”
     “Sophie Jaworski.”  

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.

      I blush, shift my eyes away, wish Mr. Ellis would march over and pick up my empty glass. But he just wipes his cloth along the shiny, dark counter. Ignoring us just I ignore the urge to slide my hand across the short field of Formica between us and connect with the warmth of Joseph’s fingertips.
Let’s break the reaction (the second paragraph down).

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.

 Within each pair of reactions, however, the subgroup is reversed:

     Involuntary: physical first, then mental
     Voluntary: mental first, then physical

 If you’re an analytical person, this may help you remember the pattern. If not, just go back to memorizing the pattern:

       Automatic physical response – automatic thought. Controlled thought. Controlled action.

 This pattern is crucial, because it’s how humans operate. If you follow this pattern, your writing will ring true to your reader. If you don’t they’ll feel uncomfortable. The writing won’t feel credible to them, even if they can’t tell you exactly why.

 It's ok to leave out parts of the response pattern. In my earlier example, a lot’s been left out.
     “What’s your name?”
     No use lying. “Sophie Jaworski.”

The response consists of a rational thought followed by a rational action (dialog.) It works, however, because even though I’ve left out parts, what I’ve left is still in the correct order.

 The rule is this: you can leave out parts, as long as the parts that remain are still in the correct order.

Checklist for Show and Tell Level
  • Do you want to have the information convey emotional impact?
              No – might be ok just being told
              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?
Next post: Layering the POV Level


  1. I've been enjoying your 'how-to's' Vicky. Very nice. I find I still sometimes flip the order of reactions. This one's going in my keeper file.

    Have a good week!

  2. Thank you for an easily understood explanation of how to "show" and not "tell" a scene. Makes sense to me. I liked how you wrote it and used examples and broke it down.