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Show don't Tell with Donna Michaels

Author Donna Michaels with a great post about Showing and Telling in Fiction Writing. 

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Make ‘em See by Donna Michaels


Show don’t tell. Three words an author learns to embrace, because that’s what writing is, a learning process.  With each story I write, I constantly learn. It’s a never-ending process. One of the most important lessons to learn is the ‘show don’t tell’ lesson. First, you need to realize the function of a story. To me, it’s a way for an author to form an emotional link with the reader. The very best books draw you in, grab hold and don’t let go long after the last page is turned.

The key is visualization. You need to paint a picture for the reader, create vivid images so they feel they’re a part of the book, that they are standing right there while everything goes on around them. This is accomplished not through telling, but by showing.

Telling states facts, and catalogues emotions and actions. Showing crafts images in a reader’s imagination, makes them see and feel the scene. Think of it as the difference between a grocery list and the actual groceries.

Let’s take a piece from my latest book. Single mother Shayla was sick with the flu all night and she just woke up to realize she’d left her baby girl under the care of the local Casanova cowboy.

I could’ve gone for a basic tell sentence:

Shayla was anxious.

It’s short and to the point, which is sometimes good, but not at all evocative. Sure, the reader knows Sally is anxious, but they are not likely to feel that anxiety. It’s our job as a writer to make the reader feel everything our characters feel.

Here’s the same sentence with a little show:

Shayla’s heart was in her throat as she rushed into the living room and stopped dead.

This example is longer, but you get more quality in the quantity. Like the first example, the second makes it clear Shayla is anxious, but unlike the first, it creates a picture in the reader’s mind. It also gives a little insight to the character and how she handles anxiety. Perhaps the reader does the same thing. Now you’ve just made a connection. You made the character real and relatable to the reader, and that is the foundation of good writing.

Another good thing to remember: don’t overuse adverbs. Whenever possible, use stronger verbs instead of the ‘telling’ adverb. Compare the next two lines:

Carol daintily ate her toast.
try
Carol nibbled on her toast.

A simple fix with a strong verb. If you want to make the sentence come to life unearth those strong verbs. Here’s another simple sentence:

Kevin walked across the floor.
Now try using stronger verbs.
Kevin ambled across the floor.
Kevin strode across the floor.
Kevin stomped across the floor.

Each of the new sentences evoked a different emotion. In the first one, Kevin comes across as laid back and friendly. The second he’s moving with a purpose, and in the third he’s clearly upset. Just by switching out the basic verb ‘walked’, you've now created emotion with one word.

One last quick lesson. Details. Don’t write stale. Show the reader your characters. If you say:

The woman wore a pretty dress.

This is too vague, and also may not come across as you’d intended. Your idea of pretty may differ from the reader’s idea of style. Instead, show them what you mean:

The woman breezed into the restaurant wearing a peach floral print high-low dress with a brushed leather belt and matching boots.

Now the reader can ‘see’ the woman and her clothes. This is technically that grocery list I’d mentioned earlier, but the details give the reader a clearer ‘vision’ of the character. She’s confident by the way she breezes in, and a little rebellious paring boots with a dress. Hip with a flair for casual. You do not get that with the first sentence. You just gave the reader an insight into your character without ‘telling’ them a thing.

By applying these simple tips to your writing you’re sure to make the reader feel your characters and their emotions. Happy writing!

Donna Michaels’ latest release HER FOREVER COWBOY is the fourth book in her Amazon Best Selling Harland County Series.

Single mother, Shayla Ryan, longs to put down roots to create a stable environment for her baby girl and her younger sister, but the threat of her abusive, ex-con father finding them has made that almost impossible. Her newest residence in Harland County, however, holds a lot of appeal, especially in the form of a Casanova cowboy with eye-catching good looks and easy charm. Those two qualities took her down the wrong road before, and though the sexy cowboy interferes with her pulse, she can’t let her heart get in the way of the safety of her family, or give it to someone who doesn’t believe in forever.  
If there’s one thing software company vice president, Kevin Dalton, loves more than puzzles, it’s women. Size, shape, race doesn’t matter as long as they don’t want a relationship—he’s not looking to repeat the past, and more than happy to remain single. Until two beautiful redheads drop him to his knees—one with her cutie-pie smile, the other with her elbow. Too bad the elbow-toting beauty is both hot and puzzling. A killer combination too strong to resist. And without realizing it, the redheads slowly rewrite the code around his heart. 
But when the danger from Shayla’s past shows up, can he rise to the challenge to keep them safe...and really be what they need? A forever cowboy?

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27 comments:

  1. Great examples! I always end up doing a Search for those pests: was, walked, looked etc and try to spice up those sentences! :)

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    1. Thanks, Jemi! And I do the same search! Love that feature. It's saved my butt a few times. lol

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  2. Writing sure is a never-ending learning process. Your tips and examples were great!

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    1. Thanks, Chrys! I keep them on hand so I can compare. lol

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  3. A fan of the strong verb fix. :)

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  4. Good luck, Donna, on your latest release.

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  5. Awesome tips. I think this is the #1 struggle for authors in their prose, but once you've mastered that lesson, you're empowered to write some incredible evocative stuff.

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    1. Thanks, Crystal! Very true. I notice I write slower now, but better.

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  6. These are great tips. The more you can help the reader visualize, the better!

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  7. Excellent post, Kelly. It's never old news to show and not tell. New writers mistake narrative for show tho, and so no wonder they get confused. I'm currently reading Monkey Beach by Giller nominee Eden Robinson. She does use a lot of tell, but it's the narrative's voice that captures the story. Learning the difference is a breakthrough in writing.

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    1. Thanks, Joylene! Very good point. There is a fine line, and exceptions to everything. Trick is to know the difference.

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  8. A big thank you to Kelly for having me here today! <3

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  9. These are very important tips for beginning writers. Good luck with your cowboy romance, Donna!! :)

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    1. Thanks, Lexa! I still refer back to these every now and again.

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  10. Definitely a great tip for new and old writers! Loved your examples! Congrats, Donna!

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  11. I can't be reminded of the show don't tell rule enough and I loved the examples. :) This was such a helpful post and I wish Donna the best of luck. Her book sounds excellent!
    ~Jess

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    1. Thank you so much, Jess! I refer back to examples often. Good to have on file. ;-)

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  12. Yet more great advice, thank you.

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  13. I do struggle with some of these! I also found a couple of things I'd always been told to never do were corrected by the editor at my publishing house...one was the instruction to just use "said" and "asked' instead of throwing in a bunch of other words for it. (She exclaimed, she intoned, he huffed, etc.) The first major feedback I got was that I needed to use said and ask less and mix in a lot of other words. I still haven't completely trained myself to reduce saids and asks, though!

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  14. Great points!! This is something I think about often, and hope to do well. I love a good story that's unfolded to me :)

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  15. The difference in those sentences is amazing. I had no idea writing was so complex. I think I will continue to read and sell books rather than try to write them.

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