When I was writing Sam and The Sea Witch, I realised I had a lot to learn about writing a story. I read much about how this should be done and I have tried to use what I have learned in my writing. I want to share it with you. If you read what I have posted below, you will see how it helped me to recognise the difference between showing the reader and telling the reader what it happening. It is quite long, so I’ve broke it down. I’ll post the second part of this document on show and tell next week. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
M. P. Ward
author of Sam and The Sea Witch
& Sam and the Beast of Bodmin moor
SHOW NOT TELL
This is a very common writing problem: telling your action/characters/plot rather than showing them. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the basic rules of writing. It may be something you’ve heard before, but it’s not always easy to learn. It’s a concept that is best explained by example.
Imagine that you’re watching a movie. It’s an action sequence: two men fighting. It’s so well done that you feel every punch; you flinch with every blow; you gasp with suspense and dread when the hero goes down. Will he get up? Oh god, what’s going to happen?!
That’s ‘showing’ action. You’re in the scene with the characters as it takes place.
Now imagine that instead of that exciting action scene, a narrator is sitting in a chair talking to the audience. “And then Jason hit him. Andrew spun quickly, hitting him back. And then—”
So when I say you’re telling your story instead of showing it, what I mean is that you, the narrator, are describing the events to your reader rather than letting them experience them for themselves. And so you’re keeping your reader at arm’s length from the action, because they’re receiving it second hand, filtered through you.
Do you know the feeling of reading a really good book, and being so caught up in it that you’re off in another world? That’s what you’re striving for, and the way to do it is to plunge your reader right into the action, so that he not only feels as though the story is unfolding right in front of him, but that he himself is actually part of it.
There are several ways of doing this, all of which you can utilise:
- action verbs/sentence structure as opposed to passive;
- choosing the perfect word
- letting the reader make his own connections/interpretations;
- avoiding adverbs in describing a character’s emotions – let your characters do the work;
- specific details;
- exposition through dialogue/incident rather than narration;
- getting inside your main character’s head.
None of these are really separate concepts, and so some of what I’m going to say will echo other bits of it. They all work together as parts of a single theme.
Action verbs/sentence structure
Overuse of ‘be-verbs’ (was, were, are, etc.), keeps your action at arm’s length from your reader, because you’re telling it instead of showing it.
Passive: The ball was kicked by the football player.
Active: The football player kicked the ball.
Do you see the difference? One plunges you into the action, the other just tells you about it.
A sentence is passive when its subject (‘ball’) is acted upon (‘was kicked’) as opposed to active, where the subject (‘football player’) is acting (‘kicked’).
In my own writing, this is something I try to be very aware of, and if I find myself composing a sentence with a be-verb, whenever possible I try to turn it around and rewrite it using an active construction instead. It almost always sounds sharper and more interesting that way.
The overuse of be-verbs has an almost lulling effect on the reader, because we’re so used to hearing them that they don’t surprise us. Sometimes you want that lulling effect as a pacing device, but usually you don’t. Using unusual but appropriate action verbs instead keeps your reader interested and awake.
One of my favourite examples of this is from a book called Red Azalea—the main character is jogging with some soldiers in a gruelling survival course, and she says ‘their footsteps chopped through me.’ I love that, because you can both hear and feel the effect of their pounding footsteps on the ground.