Thursday, December 18, 2014

Resist the Urge to Explain

This post was first published her on May 18, 2011.

When I began writing, my crit partners would often return my pages with passages labeled "R.U.E." Anyone who's undertaken writing has heard "Show, Don’t Tell"—probably more times than they've wanted. This isn't a hard and fast rule, because often telling is more efficient than showing, and done well, gets the point across. But too much telling, especially when it comes across as author intrusion, can put the brakes on the pace of your story, doing exactly the opposite of what the author intended.

For example,
"Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she'd pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard."  
The second sentence isn't needed; it's explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.

The goal of any fiction writer is to get readers to care about the characters. We want there to be an emotional connection, so we often tell our readers exactly what the character is feeling. However, saying "Mary was depressed" doesn't pull the reader in as effectively as showing Mary's actions. Did she stay in bed until noon? Eat a box of chocolates? Not eat anything at all? How did being depressed affect Mary's actions? That's what you need to show.

Another pitfall—telling something, then going on to show it. Let's say you're beginning to understand "show don't tell" and you do put the action on the page. For the sake of example, a simplistic passage might be written as follows:
After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.

The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, use your delete key on that first sentence. A better approach:
Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, and he'd cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.

The reader gets the information, and can see that Mary's depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.

What about this?
Mary's feet felt like lead. She couldn't run fast enough to escape the man chasing behind her.

Cut the first sentence. You don't need both. What about: 
Mary ran, but her feet refused to move fast enough to escape the man chasing her. Or, Mary's feet moved as though encased in lead shoes.

Sometimes, we tell the reader too much.
Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.

Don't insult your reader with the last sentence. No need to explain. We can see for ourselves Mary is a meticulous eater.

Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?
"I'm sorry," Tom said apologetically.

Those adverbs are usually signals that you're telling something the dialogue should be showing. They're propping up your dialogue, and if it needs propping, it wasn't strong enough to begin with. All that 'scaffolding' merely calls attention to the weak structure beneath.

Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can't explain why.

Check your manuscript for 'emotion' words, especially if they're preceded by "was" or "felt." Are you describing your character's feelings? Don't tell us how your character feels. Show us.

Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don't need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.

Readers are smart. Don't patronize them by 'talking down' to them. Resist the Urge to Explain.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

36 comments :

  1. I admit to doing some telling where I could be showing, however, I have read books that have done a lot of telling and I didn't mind. I believe there can be a balance.

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  2. Thanks for the reminders. I think it's easy to include too much explanation when you're writing early drafts.

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  3. This is a fantastic article, Terry. It articulates so well a number of issues I often address with my writers. As LM Preston pointed out, we need balance in our stories; and you've noted that need for tight narrative (telling) that, "done well, gets the point across" and "balances" the "showing."

    Thank you, Maryann, for posting this excellent piece.

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  4. RUE...that will be helpful to me. Thank you !

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  5. Thanks so much for having me. As LM points out, yes, there are times when telling is effective and efficient. Just like balancing dialogue and narrative, one has to consider what works best in any given situation. If the story stops so the author can tell the reader something, or if telling breaks the emotional connection to the character, then showing is better there.


    Andrea - that's what drafts are for! It's easy to "tell" that Mary was sad. Then, when you go back, you need to show it instead.

    Linda - thanks.

    Liza - glad the article helped.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  6. Good advice! A great reminder for all authors, new and old alike. That's the benefit of a good editor, provides an extra pair of eyes and objectivity. We both have the benefit of that with our Five Star/Gale editors.

    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE TRUTH SLEUTH--also published today May 18th

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  7. I often use tags like 'crossly' 'sadly' etc in my first draft as a pointer for when I edit. I'm still guilty sometimes of 'show don't tell' but I hope I'm getting better.

    R.U.E is a perfect word. My new mantra, I think!

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  8. Terry, congrats on the release!!!!

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  9. Jacqueline - thanks. Editors are critical. I hired a freelance editor when I finished the manuscript I want to publish myself. Writing 7 books doesn't mean you can edit your own.

    Sarah - nothing wrong with leaving placeholders. Keeps the writing momentum going.

    Rachel - thanks!

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. The commenter was very impressed with the information provided by Ms. Odell. "Terry Odell is very smart," he said admirably.

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  11. Christopher, I'd try to respond in kind, but I'm laughing too hard. Thanks for stopping by!

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  12. I think we can always use another reminder to show and not tell. Even though we might know the concept, sometimes we forget and end up with too much telling. Narrative summary only works if kept short as a means to move characters from one place to another without having to detail every step.

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  13. BTW, Terry has been shy about noting that her latest book "Where Danger Hides" was released today in hardback by Five Star Cengage/Gale. She writes terrific romantic suspense, so ask your local library to order a copy or two.

    And Terry, go tip a glass of champagne and celebrate.

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  14. Maryann - it's not only in writing that reminders help. And sometimes you'll get an example that clicks, or a different way of thinking of something. That's probably why there are so many different "how to" books within the same topic.

    And thanks for the plug for my books. Glad you enjoy them.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  15. I like this part best:

    "Will your reader notice these differences? Probably not, but they might not enjoy the read even if they can't explain why."

    And the part that sums up the whole article and should be seared into writers' minds is "Readers are smart. Don't patronize them by 'talking down' to them."

    Seriously, great article. It will certainly guide me in my current flash fiction.

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  16. Terry, I'm looking forward to your monthly guest posts. Welcome to the BRP club. ;) I hope you'll R.U.E. the day you met me. Hee!

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  17. I'm working very hard to correct the problems you addressed from my manuscript. I'm an adverb queen, that's for sure.

    I often try to use the character's body language to convey his or her feelings, but I'm finding that they frown and gasp a lot. Back to the drawing board.

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  18. Oh, yes, I have probably had every single example you have listed in my debut manuscript. The right balance between "showing" and "telling" is key to a good story. Great post!
    Christa

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  19. Lauren, by all means, don't patronize your readers.

    Elspeth - thanks.

    Dani - hope you don't RUE the day BRP invited me!

    Scooter -- oh, yes. It's so easy to fixate on gestures and speech patterns. Learn which ones you use, then flag them in edits.

    Christa - writing is rewriting. And rewriting is knowing what to look for.

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  20. Terry, love your last comment "Writing is rewriting." I am a firm believer that a good book isn't written, it is rewritten. Very few writers can get it right in the first draft.

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  21. Excellent!! That's a common "first-timer's" compulsion, and even we "old-timers" are guilty of it now and then. :)

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  22. Love this post. After I write a chapter or scene, I always skim it a couple of days later for this very thing, because I know I will over explain or use too many adverbs. I'm getting better at catching it as I write, but that's still a WIP.

    And very true about tight narrative and telling working well when done correctly. Great post!

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  23. I'm delighted to see you focus on this. I was mentored by two writers, who drilled this into me. Now, I mentor a number of other younger writers and do the same. :) I'm sending them this link. Thanks!

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  24. Heidi - I think we're all guilty because we have so much in our heads that needs to get out.

    Stacy - I generally read each day's output in bed at night. That also gives me a starting point for the next day's work.

    Ane - passing it forward is a wonderful thing.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  25. Awesome post, Terry. When an agent or editor sees the missteps you identify here, they know the author lacks confidence in her craft. This is a great use of critique groups: with stuff like this cleaned up, the editor you hire can help you more.

    My least favorite construct is this type of tell-then-show:
    Exasperated, Mary threw the mail on the table. Disappointed, she realized there was no letter from John. Exhausted, she flopped into the chair. Hoping one nice thing might happen today, she opened the envelope from the IRS hoping it was her return. Depressed, she discovered it was an audit. Remove all those opening "emotion markers," along with the "realized" and "discovered," and we're in business!

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  26. Kathryn, you've also demonstrated one other issue: cart before the horse. Since we know how our characters feel, it's often too easy to show the emotion before the stimulus that caused it, such as Disappointed, she realized there was no letter from John.

    In reality, she's not disappointed until after she realizes there was no letter from John.

    One more thing to look out for!

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  27. And usually it's that last sentence. :)

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  28. I agree with this article completely. I usually get accused of not helping the reader enough. There are several people in my writers group who are huge proponents of being repetitive and adding telling to make sure the reader understands. So a refreshing article indeed.

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  29. I love it when someone agrees with me! :-) Maybe your group will read this article and at least you'll have someone else in your corner.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  30. Great reminder. I'm editing a book right now that double dips into the showing and telling/R.U.E. bowl with dialogue followed or preceded by explanatory tags and abundant but unnecessary adverbs. I've caught a number of them, but will be on the lookout for more.

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  31. Linda, I'm sure your editing will make the work stronger. Less is more.

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  32. Yep, Terry ... if you're wearing suspenders, you don't need a belt.

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  33. Really good post, Terry. I have to remind myself about these things when I'm going through edits. She squinted her eyes. Well, yeah. What else could she squint?

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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