Friday, 24 November 2017

Show Don’t Tell - The Writer’s Mantra! But When is it Okay to Tell?

‘Show don’t tell’ is the single most valuable piece of advice a writer can receive. Don’t tell the reader what’s going on, get out your box of paints and create a world that readers can disappear into. Don’t explain what’s happening, stay in the moment and allow the events to unravel, detail by detail. The closer you get to the action or drama, the more immersed your readers will become in your fantasy.

We all know the Chekhov quote now – ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’­ – and it’s a great illustration of the point.

Every time I assess or edit a fresh manuscript for a client, the words ‘show don’t tell’ will always pop up at least once in my notes, whether it’s simply a need to show the heat and tension on a character’s face rather than simply writing, ‘She was angry’, or a greater sin of completely lapsing into distant overview and summarising whole scenes when what we really need is to stay in the moment.

However, there is definitely a time and a place for telling. You just need to make sure you know when and where that is.

I am rereading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and rediscovering what a masterclass it is on the subject. It’s hard to talk about the book without spoilers, so I will simply say that Rosemary’s story is unravelled throughout the early decades of her life, which Fowler achieves through a balance of scene-building and overview, showing and telling, both of which are necessary because of the scope of the story. The genius of this narrative is Fowler’s instinct for when to zoom in for a closeup of the moments of Rosemary’s life and when to pull away to show readers the bigger picture. She does so with a deft hand that allows her to skip from the past to the present, and uses the distinct first-person voice to colour her ‘telling’ with the opinions and character of her narrator that make the book so unique. I highly recommend taking a look.

Zooming in and out is a great way of addressing the showing and telling issue. For the most part, we obviously need to be zoomed in. This is where readers are flies on walls that you are creating, eavesdropping on the dialogue, absorbing interactions moment by moment, interpreting nuanced behaviour into character and plot (with no ‘telling’ from you). The telling comes in when you need to convey something that cannot be shown … and I mean really cannot be shown; this does not include explanations of what a character is feeling, unnecessary chapter introduction and summaries of what’s generally going on (which often show a lack of confidence in your ability and underestimate the intelligence of your readers).

So, when can you tell?

‘Telling’ often becomes necessary when there are gaps that need to be filled; either the past needs to be explained or time has moved on and your readers need to know what’s happened in their absence. This is where I encourage you to get creative and ask questions of your project. Do you need to tell as much as you think in the exposition? Would you be creating a more challenging read if background was implied rather than directly revealed? And when used, what can you do to create ‘telling’ that is as absorbing and compelling as the ‘showing’? Fowler and others zoom in and out even within exposition, often throwing in fragments of scenes and dialogue alongside summary to illustrate their ‘telling’; what can you do in this way to dissolve the distance that ‘telling’ creates?

This is especially challenging with first-person narratives, where you are firmly positioned inside your main character’s head and it is tempting to explain what they are thinking and experiencing rather than showing it, which is why it is so important to consider how you are going to approach this kind of commentary before beginning. Even if you have created a character whose thought processes, worldview and personal voice are so dynamic and captivating that we are hanging off every thought they have, we will still get closer to them if we are allowed to see out of their eyes and experience the world the way they see it, rather than simply being told about it.

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Sunday, 5 March 2017

Staying Motivated When You’re Skint, Pissed Off and Your Protagonists are Stalking Your Nightmares

You’re skint! You’ve been working on the same soul-hungry, ink-draining, end-dodging novel/screenplay/collection for so long that its characters have started to lurk around the corners of your nightmares and jump out at you with their demonic hair and crazy weapons of doom. When you wake up they’re still there, demanding your attention even though it’s a sunny day and you’ve been told there are actually real people in the world. You’ve starting to compare yourself to people your age, from your best mate to J.K. Rowling, both of whom have achievements that far outweigh your own. You’ve started to hide from your laptop because it’s looking at you all the time and you’re sure you can hear it calling you. Why aren’t you writing? You can’t run from me forever! You walk into the library and your heart sinks at the sheer volume of books confronting you. What could you possibly have to say that hasn’t already been said? And no one’s reading them anyway. You’re battling to produce a masterpiece that will end up in this large-print, pensioner-fingered graveyard before it’s even lived a life. All is lost!

But you know deep down that this is what you signed up for. You know that you can make a killing but not a living with a pen, so you drag yourself through the lean years. You know that there will be days when your characters salute you when the sun goes down and you can snuggle under your duvet as a hero of the craft, so you tolerate the struggle. You know that the majority of writers find success later in life and you’re in no hurry, but how can you keep your sanity in the meantime, when your self-confidence has buggered off in a taxi with your talent and you’re sitting on the floor thinking the unthinkable – of getting a proper job? Maybe this will help …

Read Something Awesome
This could be the book that you’ve been waiting to hit the shelves, a biography by an author who has been through what you’re going through, or your favourite book, which you’ve already read one hundred times. There is a danger of falling out of love with books when your own has had you in a headlock for so long, so be good to yourself and get into bed with a classic.

Do something Awesome
I waste a lot of time when I should be writing and I end up doing nothing. I think I’m fooling myself, but I’ve got my number. Watching ‘just one episode’ on Netflix, cleaning the house from top to bottom, alphabetising my shoes; this is not writing and I am fooling nobody. If writing just isn’t going to happen then better to be honest about it and go out into the world than spend a day wracked with guilt and zero productivity. Go have a good time and feel good. Go and do something awesome and inspiring and your creative world will reap the benefits anyway.

Make Contact with Awesome People
Write a letter (yes, a letter) to your favourite author. Why? Because they might actually write back to you with words of encouragement. Because it will make you feel good to reach out. Join writing forums and get Tweeting, join a real-life writing group to meet other writers who have pulled half their hair out over questions of point of view and characterisation. Get support.

Try an Awesome New Medium
If you’re a novelist, have a go at writing a screenplay; if you’re a screenwriter, try your hand at poetry; if you’re a poet, see what it feels like to develop a play; if you write comedy, get serious; if you are a literary author, lighten up; if you tend to write long, sprawling sentences, see what short bursts are like. Go further still; if you usually tell a story with words, try doing it with music or art, film or dance. There are many ways to tell a story and so many creative spaces in which to park your beautiful mind.

Write to Your Awesome Self
I read this tip in a book many years ago and it’s such a charming idea. Quite simply, write an emergency letter to be opened in times of deep dejection and distress. Write it when you’re feeling great. You’re the best writer ever. George Orwell and Virginia Woolf had a love affair and you were the result. There has never been a writer quite like you. Write it all down and go into specifics, remind yourself of what inspired you to write in the first place and what you would like to achieve with this project. Be kind to yourself.

Need help? Hayley Sherman has been supporting independent writers for nearly ten years as an editor, creative consultant and ghost-writer. Visit for more details.