Nov 3rd, 2020
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Episode 47: Let Us Tell You About Show Don't Tell
(Our usual transcriptionist is taking a well-deserved break. Any drop in quality of today's transcript is totally our fault.)
Hi, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of we make books, a show about writing publishing and everything in between. I'm Kaelyn Considine. I am the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.
And I'm Rekka. I write science fiction and fantasy as RJ Theodore.
And you know what you've done? You have shown us that you write science fiction and fantasy as RJ. Theodore, you have not just told us
Although today I did just tell you.
You did just tell me now, but I mean, the books exist. I've seen them. So you've shown us that, but you have also talked at length about different parts and aspects of how you've written these and things that have happened to you, therefore showing us that you wrote them.
Or did I just tell you all this stuff? I don't know. What does this rule mean anyway?
Yeah. So today we're, we're tackling another one of those,uthose weird, funny little notes that you get from,ueditors and people critiquing your work. And you'll see, "show me, don't tell me" and –
Really frustrating because everyone says it and assumes you know what they mean, but if you haven't really processed what it means, or you haven't managed to do it and have someone say, "yes, that's what I mean by show, don't tell," like you just feel a little bit lost. You feel like maybe you are falling behind in the class kind of thing. Like why does everyone know what this means? And I still don't understand?
It is difficult, but I think it's one of those things that once you kind of figure out, it's a lot easier to understand what the note means. What, you know, we're trying to get at here is describing something to the reader and making the sentence do a lot of– do work in more than one way is a lot more interesting to read than just a list of descriptions, actions, emotions, or feelings.
If you at least identify when you're doing it in the revisions that's going to go a long way to improving your relationship with beta readers and editors later.
And improving your relationship with your characters, because we're going to talk a lot about that in this episode too. So–
All right. So let's not tell you what the episode is.
Let's show you!
On the other side of the music.
In this case, we're here mostly just to tell people things. If we just record this while showing things to each other, it's not going to be very,
What we're showing is our competence with writing skills and techniques
And demonstrating, Ooh, maybe that's it. Okay. I solved it. Don't call it. Show don't tell because that confuses people show, call it demonstrate don't elucidate. Rolls right off the tongue.
Oh goodness. That's going on a mug somewhere. So yeah, but today we're, we're talking about one of the other great notes that people frequently get back from editors and agents, which is "show me, don't tell me I, I will, I think this is not as quote-unquote unhelpful as, you know, "tighten your storylines, work on your character arcs," that kind of thing. Um.
But it's one of the ones that people get early on in their writing because it's supposed to be so helpful, but if you haven't come across it and you don't know how to identify why it's being pointed out in your work, like what the heck does it mean?
Yeah. So there's, you know, before we, before we get started in too deep into this, let's kind of define some of the areas that we're talking about here. And it's funny because Rekka and I were talking about doing this episode and we both came to this with kind of different approaches to the show. Don't tell me like, things that were important to Ned,uwhile doing some research, I kind of discovered that what Rekka and I both think is important. Most of the literary world doesn't think is as important.
Well, we are genre-focused.
That just supports that.
Yeah. So I came into this with like one of my big pet show me, don't tell me a pet peeves is characters. Urecords is world-building and,I–
It's not even that it was that you said characters first. So I said, Oh, okay. But also "world building." It wasn't like, I was like, "No, world building first!" This wasn't like a showdown.
It's always a showdown.
It was a telldown. I'll show myself out.
All right. That's the podcast, everyone. We're done.
Like forever. She can't take it anymore.
Oh God. Okay. but it's funny because then when I was doing research on this and most of these "show me, don't tell me examples. And what everybody's talking about is more of writing and prose and style. So the point of all of it is nobody wants to be bombarded with facts and told "this is the way things are in this book" without actually experiencing it while reading it. One it's bad storytelling and two it's disorienting,
But if they're reading it, aren't they experiencing it?
Well, no, they're not because that's not experiencing it, that's just being read a list of facts and statements.
I know I'm playing devil's advocate in case you didn't tell.
I know. Um so why is this a problem?
Because you bore your reader, you don't engage them. You don't pull them through the book.
Yeah. This is one of those things that, and we rarely, you know, kind of come down to this it's bad writing. It's like, I mean, really, you know, we don't, we don't talk too much about like, you know, universally accepted things that are considered bad writing, but this is one of them because as Rekka said, it's boring, it is not engaging. It's not pulling the reader into the book. Anyone can sit here and rattle off a list of, you know, facts about like the, you know, the kitchen table that had sitting at right now, it was brown and round. Light brown with wood patterns on it. It was made of wood. And that's not really interesting. It distracts from the story. It doesn't paint a scene. It doesn't give you any indication of how the character is feeling or interacting, or considering how to act based on their surroundings or their thoughts. It's bad writing. And it's well, not always lazy, but oftentimes lazy.
But it's also not serving a purpose other than to describe the table. And if the table itself doesn't have anything to do with the tension you're trying to build in a scene or inform you what this character might be like, because you know, you're discussing the furnishings of their house, which describes the character. Maybe more than just saying the character can afford lots of nice furniture. You know.
The, every everything, well, the vast majority of what you write in your book should be serving two purposes. If a monster erupts out of the ground to try to eat our heroes and you have to stop the action and the story to describe the monster, that's serving two purposes. One, you want to describe the monster. You want to know what the heroes are about to fight against, but two, you want them to know how scary this monster is. So the words you use, you don't just say, "it looked like a centipede. It was purple. It had a lot of legs and weird green eyes with lots of facets on them. Venom was dripping off its fangs." Actually "venom was dripping off its fangs" is a good example of what, how to describe it. But instead of stating facts about it, what you should be doing instead is, you know, "the creature erupted out of the ground, spraying rock and sand everywhere. Once they cleared the dust from their eyes, they beheld the monster before them. It was a towering behemoth of," you know, and go on like that, because what you're doing is you're showing that the readers are, or excuse me, that the heroes are freed here. And then you also don't have to tell us that they're afraid.
I was just going to say well can't you sum it up and say the monster burst forth from the ground and scared the heroes?
Absolutely. If you don't want anyone to know what the monster looks like. Yeah.
Yeah. So you would use this to do both things, show that the person is scared and the reaction without having to say this is their reaction and do the thing that you'd really like to do, which is, I assume if you're creating a monster as you want to get into what the monster looks like and the creature design.
Yeah. So in this case you know, what we're kind of talking about here is the last thing I brought up, which is sort of like the style and prose and writing technique of, you know, making your sentences do extra work for you. You're describing the monster and then you're also establishing that it is threatening and our heroes are afraid of it to, you know, circle back to some of the other ones that Rekka and I came up with here. You know, well Rekka you know, had specifically said world-building.
Yeah, well, mostly because when you have a genre book, you've got some sort of aspect of the world that you've invented from whole cloth. And of course, you're very proud of that. And of course you want to talk about it. And this isn't to say, like, there's the whole iceberg theory thing, and I'm not going to go into that. That's not what I mean by this. But the idea that you want to keep the book interesting, which means you need to keep the motivation of the reader of wanting to find out what happens next. If you're just describing a setting in your world. Well, it doesn't matter what happens next. That setting is probably unaffected by the plot and the story. And the time you take away from keeping that reader in the story is detrimental to their, you know, their draw into the whole world.
So even though you think like, "Oh, my world is so cool. I have to get all this in here." Your reader cares less and less about the world when you keep interrupting the story to tell them about it. So just like Katelyn was saying, do two things with your sentences, you know, throw a little bit of your world building into an action. That's happening in the story. You know, passing the,uneon ice cream shop where all the ice cream was neon of course is what I mean. Not that it's painted neon. That's ridiculous. You know, so like build your world building in the same way that you're going to build your emotional reactions to things in and your physical descriptions of things. So in the sense, your first example kind of was world building. Ubut it was also emotional. And so your sentences need to do at least two things. So they can be emotion and world building or action and world building, or action and emotion, or character and world like, you know, mixing match. Don't just have nouns and verbs in the right order.
Yeah. So, and then my, my particular pet peeve with the show me don't tell me is is character related. I hate reading books, I hate getting submissions, where all I'm reading about is how a character is. So this and guys, this character, they are just, so This Thing, this, that they're, so This, that it's practically coming out of their ears. Everyone knows that they're, they're, This they're just the most This that there is. And then you see nothing in their actions, thoughts, or speech that would indicate that aside from the author and then usually other characters around them telling you this.
Reinforcing it in a very direct and obvious way.
Yeah. So it's that's, that's one of that is my big show me don't tell me pet peeve is,uif you know, you've got a guy who's supposed to be like the most brilliant, I don't know codebreaker in the entire world, but we don't actually see him break any codes and that's not part of the plot, why is that, you know, why do you need me to tell to know this? Why is that important here? And,uubut you know, there's, there's things that I think you get a little more and you see this a lot in,uyoung adult and teen novels where,uyou know, you want the cool kid, the shy kid, the goth kid, the, you know, where we get these sort of like emotional angles and none of them are actually then displayed in the writing of the character. Uso why... You know, apart from why is this important? Why, why is it bad writing?
Good writing is something that someone can enjoy. So if they're not enjoying it– you know, like, okay, across the board, not everyone is going to enjoy every story, but there are things you can do to increase your chances that someone's going to enjoy the story. And one of those things is to control, for example, the pacing and the immersion of the reader in the world. And when you tell someone something, rather than show it to them, you're kind of saying, "No, no, no, no, just trust me on this," without providing the proof. Exactly. And so it's hard for a person to sink into that world and enjoy it if they're constantly thinking, "Well, okay, you say that, but where I, like, what does that mean to this character? Or what does that, how is that going to impact the story or anything like that?"
Yeah. And I think that where this comes from a lot is this, especially, you know, in genre fiction, like, you know, Rebecca and I work in is "I've come up with this really cool thing, and I need everybody to know all about it. I need them to know about how awesome this world is or how scary this monster is or how cool and bad-ass my main character is."
Well we do want to know these things.
Yes, absolutely. But "if I tell them over and over again, they'll get it," and that is not how you get a reader to internalize things, readers, internalize things by the actions of the characters or the interaction with the world around them.
Do you think this is kind of, and I hate this phrase, is this just like a "rookie mistake" where they know they need to convince somebody of this, or they know they need to include this. They just don't know how to go about doing it properly?
Yeah. And I think it is. I think it's something that you see a lot with new and emerging writers, where you've just got all of these amazing ideas coming out of your ears and you've just, you know, gotta gather them all up and get them on a page. And so what it turns into is just, you know, a list of reasons why this thing is how you say it is rather than seeing people you know, either display those characteristics or seeing the world, or even just the way that you're writing. So a lot of times, you know, as we said, when you, you're going to get into, if you Google, you know, "show me, don't tell me" it's going to be pages and pages of you know, examples and literature and all of these famous quotes and stuff about it. But it goes beyond just style and the ability and the way that you write. Within the story itself, you can't, you know, make a character a certain way by having everyone else around them insist they are that way, but them showing no signs of that whatsoever.
So I'm going to give an example with Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, because when you think about Scrooge, you tend to think like, "Oh, well he's a cheapskate." I mean, the name is synonymous with cheapskate. This is a thing Dickens did. He made stuff pretty clear just by the way he named people. His story is about his character arc. You think about it, and you're like, "yeah, no, people are pretty clear that Ebenezer's really awful." And you can say "Ebenezer's is really awful," if you were writing the story or you can describe him as "the cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled, his cheek, stiffened, his gait made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grading voice." Like–
Yeah, that's good writing that.
Yeah. And I'm not a huge Dickens fan. He got paid by the word. And so he did go on, but like he was described, he described Scrooge as "a squeezing wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous, old sinner." Like these are descriptive things but they're adding so much. Right? And then not only that, but the character behaves in such a manner. You're not just told this, but he says, you know, when people come to him and this is what you're saying about like the character supporting like, "Oh, just saying, Oh, you're an old miser, Scrooge," no people come to him looking for charitable handouts for the holidays. As, you know, as being established as, as good and wholesome and Scrooge says, "are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" Like, he has an argument with people that shows how you might expect a person to behave and how this person is behaving in contradiction to that. And so it's just like a really,
It's rich. Like the way that, you know, this is, this is seven layers of Scrooge-ness that you get out of these, these, these words that are chosen. And so like in some ways it's good that he was paid by the word.
Most people in the English speaking world, even if they haven't read a Christmas Carol or seen one of the movies, which by the way, the Muppet version of it is, is the best one. Michael Kane, as Scrooge, there should be no other Scrooges ever.
Certainly not Jim Carey.
Most people know when somebody says like, Oh God, he's a Scrooge. Or, you know, like call you Scrooge. They,
It's an idiom now.
Yes, exactly. Because this was so effective in the writing. So that's a really, really good example of why this is important. Going back to, you know, like new writers and just wanting to get this stuff out there. I just think that information dumps, this insisting upon– the characters that insist upon themselves, is really distracting from the story.
Because you can feel it's the writer doing the insisting.
Yes. It makes you not like the characters. And I'm not saying every character in your book needs to be loved and cheered for, but you usually need at least one to love and cheer for or everyone's going to have a really hard time getting through the book.
Yeah. And I'm dealing with that in some of the TV shows I'm watching right now. There are so many important characters, but you at least understand their motivations, even if you don't like them or want to spend any time in their presence.
Did you just finished The Boys, Rekka?
I might have, yes. There's no one left to root for almost. But the, the idea of you insisting, "Mary Sue–"
Yeah, let's lean in here.
"Was So beautiful. Everyone loved her and she looked great in everything she wore." That's, that's great, but I'm not getting anything out of that.
Well, also, do you see what just happened there? You're not developing a character. You're giving me a list of qualities and traits about them.
This is like a job application.
Yeah, exactly. Let's use Bella from the Twilight series.
I think she's a prime example of this.
Yes. So you know, for those of you who have not read this or have not seen the movies and I, dear God, Kirsten Stewart Um so one of the really common critiques of the Twilight books apart from, you know, like apart from the "dear God, why?" Was, you know, on, a literary level that Bella is an empty vessel and there's debate as to whether or not this was the intention of the author, you know, that she'd just come off as like a very plain uninteresting character with very little personality to speak of, so that young girls reading this could, you know, easily put themselves into, you know, relate to her and say, "I am just like Bella." But what is really infuriating about this character and full disclosure—I have read all of these books. I haven't read the most recent one because why would I, at this point Um one of the things that, you know, a lot of people pointed out about this that is a legitimate critique of Twilight apart from the fact that these are vampires that don't catch fire the sun, but that's fine. It's, it's fine. We don't actually see Bella do too much that would establish her personality. If you took out the fact that this is written from her perspective. And even despite the fact that it's written from her perspective, there isn't a whole lot going on with this girl. She doesn't have a whole ton of defining characteristics other than the fact that she's in love with a vampire. That is her entire personality. We're told things like she's very smart, she's very accident prone. She's very you know, she's a hard worker.
She's really loyal. The loyalty one, maybe we see a little bit, but I'm not sure if it's loyalty or obsession. One of the running jokes through the whole book is how accident prone she is. I, I could not come up with anything other than sometimes she bumps into people in the hallway there, so this is a good example of, you know, show me, don't tell me where and granted, here's the thing: this may have been deliberate on the part of the author, even though I said, I haven't read the newest one. So,ushe re-wrote the first book from the perspective of the shiny vampire boyfriend. Okay. Uso you're getting everything from his angle and you know what, for the sake of this podcast now, I think I'm going to have to go read this book because it would be very interesting to see Bella from outside Bella, and whether or not she seems to have a personality. And I think that's exactly what this book is. So now.. Dammit, Now I've gotta go read this book.
Well you don't HAVE to.
No. I have to, for the sake of science. Bella, I think is a good example of in terms of characters, "show me, don't tell me" because we just keep hearing all this stuff about her without ever actually seeing her be anything except pretty much completely passive aside from acting dramatically and irrationally when it comes to Shiny Vampire Boyfriend.
And you say, this is an effective tool to rope in a certain kind of reader. But it seems to me that if you write a compelling character, you're going to rope in a reader of any type.
I would hope so because here's the thing, there were, she was surrounded by compelling characters, everything around her was far more interesting than she was.
And it was just rubbing off on her, was that the idea?
I GUESS. You know, like I didn't, I remember talking about this with someone and they were like, "I don't understand why, you know, girls, like all of these young girls love this book so much. Like, I mean the main character is like so boring." And I said, "they're not reading it for her, the reading it for the love triangle, the reading it for Hot Werewolf Guy and Shiny Vampire Boy."
Um Bella's just a vessel to carry that story along in all of this.
It just seems like it could also be done effectively with someone who is not an empty vessel.
Absolutely. And that's the better story.
Okay. So getting back to the "show, don't tell," don't don't take too much to heart from the gobs and gobs of money that the Twilight series has made. Please. We would hate for you to go down that dark and disturbing path.
–To Make a lot of money off–
Look, if, if that's what you enjoy reading and that's how you liked your characters... I guess?
Hey, you know what, look, everybody like knocked Twilight for a lot of stuff. If that's just something you enjoy sitting down and reading and kind of, you know, mindlessly, or in a very engaged way, going through. Awesome. That's great. But Bella is a good example of characters that we were told about rather than shown.
Okay. So getting back to the, the origins of this, when it's handed out as advice and who's handing it out as advice and where does it come from? Where's it supposed to take you and how do you want a new writer to interpret the phrase?
So if I tell somebody, I never just put, you know, highlight something and say, "show don't tell me," I always put a note next to there saying like, "Hey instead of you telling me about how, you know, sharp, this sword is, have the character pick it up and slice something in half." That's way more interesting than, you know, just staring at this sword and describing it in great detail.
Although a little irresponsible.
Well, it depends what you're slicing in half. You know, if there was a watermelon that you were about to eat anyway, then sure. You know,
Yeah but the sword doesn't deserve to be used as cutlery!
Depends on the sword.
Okay. So two characters arguing over whether or not they can use the sword to cut the watermelon. "I'm Not saying it won't cut the watermelon. I'm saying that's not an appropriate use of our family's sacred sword."
"And I'm saying that we all want the watermelon. I see nothing else around except the family sacred sword. Don't you think your family would want us to have the watermelon?"
"And we'll wash it right away. We'll hang it back on the wall over the hearth. Everyone will just think we polished it. It'll look better. Everyone will be happy."
And then we get watermelon.
And then later, monsters attack and the edge of the sword is dull because you cut the watermelon with it and everybody dies, the end.
Oh. Very good Rekka. Very good. Yeah. So when I highlight these things, what I'm trying to communicate to the reader really at the core of it is either one, you were slowing down the story or two, you're missing an opportunity to contribute something to the story. Be it, you know, establishing of piece of information we didn't know before, giving the characters a chance to kind of show their feelings or their emotions a little bit you know, having an action rather than a description. The author who wrote Fight Club–
There you go. Chuck Palahniuk. I remember reading something that he wrote and I actually, I did go and look it up before this, and he, to remember doing exactly he said. But he doesn't like what he calls Thought Verbs thinks knows, understands, wants desires. What he's saying instead is make sure you have an Action Word in there.
And by that, like, instead of saying like, you know, "understands," describe what they're understanding. They smelled something and it triggered a memory and they remembered this. They, you know, reach their hand out in the dark and touch something and realized it was the centipede monster from earlier in the story. It ate both of those heroes and unow it's hiding in the dark.
Yeah. He's back, the centipede monster's here forever. So, sensory and action details are a good way to avoid telling people about it because what you're doing then is you're making the character experience something and you're making them relate things to you and have to describe it. You can't just say "Rekka smelled something," you need to say, "Rekka smelled something foul. It made her nervous. It reeked of death." Because now what you're doing is you're describing what Rekka smelled. You're giving us a sense of her emotional state. And you're implying that there is probably a dead body somewhere.
So you're setting up the scene.
And I did find the Lit Reactor article that you're talking about with Chuck Palahniuk's words. And so "instead of characters knowing anything, present details that allow the reader to know those things" is kind of how he phrases it. So instead of a character wanting something, you have to describe the thing so that the reader wants it. In the sense of Twilight, you're putting the character in that main character's shoes, except you're not doing it by making those shoes empty for the reader to step into. You're actually tying them onto the reader's feet yourself.
Okay. That's– There you go. Yeah. And that's exactly what it is, is it's immersive. Every story is told from something's perspective, be it, you know, a super advanced alien life form or a somehow borderline sentient rock. They're both still experiencing things. Now they're experiencing them very differently, but that's your job to communicate in the book, and just telling us what they're experiencing is not immersing the reader. If you're a rock on Mars, just sitting there going "wow, I'm just this rock of Mars. It's really red and dusty here."
See, I thought you were going for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble when you talked about being a rock.
Oh, that's a good book.
That's an excellent book.
Scared me when I was a kid.
Scared you, really?
I don't know. It's just like, so for those of you who haven't read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, first of all, go, go read that. But it's a story of a donkey who finds a magic pebble.
I think his parents give it to him. Don't they?
I thought he found it in a Creek and if he holds it and he realizes he can make a wish and the wish will come true. And he's being attacked by a lion at one point, and I'm not sure geographically where takes place.
It was Oatsdale, of course.
He's being attacked by a lion and wishes that he were a rock because the lion won't attack a rock. Except then he realizes he's dropped the pebble and he's not holding it anymore and he can't wish himself to be back from being a rock. Yeah. And he stays a rock for a really long time.
Well, that's what I'm saying, this is the point of view of a rock.
Yeah. But no, it's actually really sad because his parents think like he's dead and like go, you know, search for him forever. And like, they keep like standing on top of him to like search for him and sitting on him and crying about him. And it's, it's a really weird children's book. You know, so if you're, you know, as I said, the rock on Mars and you know, it's still dull, dull, boring life. And then all of a sudden robot shows up your prose and your sensory words and your, you know, way that you're experiencing, and the things that you're seeing obviously have to change in order to communicate the excitement of the rock, because "Hey, robot!"
Which you can't call to or wave to, or walk over to, or offer ice cream to.
Maybe it's going to pick you up to study you.
If you're lucky.
Yeah. And then what if, you know, you start to fall in love with the robot, but it turns out that it's not actually the robot because it's a bunch of people in NASA controlling the robot, but you don't know that.
I don't know, the robot's got algorithms.
Yeah. That's true. How do you fix this? How do you avoid falling into this trap? Rekka, have you ever had to kind of reconcile with this?
I was just thinking like, I wish I'd grabbed the notes, but Ryan Kelley, my editor at Parvus, when we were working on Salvage, one of the things he did was point out a few areas,uwith the one character Emeranth where some opportunities were there that I had missed to make her as clever and as caring and as smart as she could have been. And so his suggestion was something along the lines of like, "this is a great opportunity to show her doing the governing that she's forced into" and that sort of thing.
Yeah. That is something that I frequently make notes of is it's not even, you know, with the writers at this point that I'm getting bored, it's that you're missing an opportunity to have this person do something and, you know, be the bad-ass that you're saying they are. Be the clever person that you're saying they are, the great leader, the great fighter, the coward, you know, any, any number of these things
He said when he was pointing out a spot that needed showing, not telling he wasn't saying "show don't tell" waggling a finger and then moving on like, "Oh, my job is done. What a good editor I am." He was saying, "I would suggest that you use this to build this character into the character you say they are." And now Emeranth's scenes make me get all, like we be in shivery on the regular. So...
"Show don't tell" helps develop, you know, whether it be like your world building, your character, or just even your writing technique, it's going to give you a more rich style. You know, like at the most basic level you don't say you know, "Stephanie was a selfish immature entitled girl." You write a scene where Stephanie's throwing a fit because everybody forgot to throw a surprise party for her dog's half birthday.
So we talk about this broadly, we've talked about children's books, we've talked about movies, we've talked about YA books and all kinds of stuff, but are there genres in which this applies less or more like, are there expectations of like, "yeah, no, I actually just want you to get out of my way with this character and let me use them as an avatar for myself in this story."
I don't know if there are, genres where it's acceptable. I'll be honest with you. This is something that I think is pretty universally frowned on. This is one of the few sort of constants. You know, that said, anytime you're writing something, there's going to be instances where you have no choice but to do a little bit of quote-unquote telling you know, be it because maybe it's a really fast-paced scene and you want to keep the reader engaged and you want to keep the action going. So it's, "he parried left. She swiped, right. He ducked, she dodged they've rolled on the ground," you know, like you're.
But that's action.
It's engaging. And if we're using Chuck Palahniuk's example, like that's exactly where you want to be, is more in the physical. So if you are telling and, but it's action beats, would you say that's better than telling in thought beats?
Okay. So then my question is, what role in this conversation specifically, would you say adverbs play?
I feel like there's some bleed in, you know, between the two.
I think adverbs are, like any other thing in life, good in moderation. You know, there's again, and this is another thing that there's a lot of people with very strong opinions about there, about–
Never ever ever use adverbs.
Yeah. That's impossible.
It's simply, it's simply, it's like not ending your sentences with a preposition, it's like just not the way the English language works. So what Rekka's referring to here is, you know, some editors and, you know, people who get all stuffed up about this stuff. Will say, I don't want to see you write "'Oh, you'll see,' Rekka said slyly.'" I want to hear "Rekka closed the laptop and turned to me with a sly smile on her face and a glint in her eye. 'Oh, You'll see,' she said." Notice how I made it not an adverb.
Yeah. By not connecting it to the say.
Exactly. Yes. And yeah, there is this little kind of weird nebulous area there where like, you're like, "well, I'm describing what she's doing. It's, it's kind of an action." But at the same time, you're telling me what she's doing, rather than showing me with a sly smile on her face.
That's I would point out that in the, the example, your quote-unquote correction, we also have things that ground us in the space. And so one, a person who might feel the need to tell you what everyone is thinking might also feel the need to show all the actions in the right order, what hand they're using. Like "she used her left hand to close the door while she scratched her nose with her right, with the fingertips of her right hand," you know, like being very specific about everything.
Yeah. That's interesting that you bring this up because what you're doing now is you're crossing into a different literary problem. We are past the "show, don't tell" and we are into the "excessively detailed for absolutely no reason."
And we will maybe talk about that in another episode.
Yes. But that is, that is a good point. Is that there is a certain, you know– we get past a certain telling like capacity and into the you're now describing the placement of every single thing in the room for no reason.
This is a game of twister.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
But what you did was you combined the two things to say, like, we've moved ahead with the story because the laptop has been closed or maybe "Rekka closed the laptop and grabbed her jacket. 'You'll See.'" That implies movement.
Yes. But you're leaving is she being threatening?
I wasn't going so much for the sly as talking about like trying to get more action in, in that sense.
In the case of being sly, then you might say "Rekka closed the laptop, grabbed her jacket and narrowed her eyes as she shut the lights off. 'You'll See.'" Or whatever.
Yeah. So yeah. Are there times where you have to, you will have to tell rather than show? Absolutely. Are adverbs a never use them? No, I mean, you will, at some point have to use an adverb, but they are a slippery slope to telling, not showing, even though they sound like you're doing a good job of describing something, they're really telling rather than describing,
They are skipping the cues that we want in the story and they are jumping right to the judgment. So what you're doing is you're telling the reader how to feel rather than making them feel that. But one thing you did mention earlier, real quick, that I just wanted to get back to before we wrap this up, is the idea of a fast paced scene where there's a lot of action and maybe you've just, you know, watched a Jason Statham movie and you feel like you need to really show all that action and show and describe the, say, like train– underground train tunnel they're in while they're running around chasing each other. But if stopping to describe the space they're in means that you lose that momentum, then it may still be in the physical, but it could also be more telling than we need. You know, "I nearly slipped on a loose piece of old soggy newspaper" or something like that. That's still–
That brings you back into the action, increases the threat because you could fall down now, versus like "the train station had been abandoned since 1970, despite many attempts by the local politicians to renovate and drum up support for a Renaissance of the train museum, which was founded by so-and-so."
That's world building!
We don't need to know all of that.
That doesn't serve your action scene with Jason Statham, who's got to get in that train car and then take off his sweater and use it to defeat his enemies.
Yeah. Because unless the enemy he's defeating is the corrupt politician that was siphoning money out of the budget to restore the train station. All we need to know is that has been abandoned for about 50 years.
Yeah. And some gross newspaper will communicate that better than a history lesson.
Just to round this out. You know, somebody comes back to you and is like, Hey, show me, don't tell me you're kind of going, "Oh, well, what the heck do I do with this?" Take a look at the sentence or the paragraph in particular that they're calling attention to and try– read it out loud, try to figure out if it sounds like the paragraph or the sentence is doing double work to you. Is it conveying more than simple statements of fact or very straightforward descriptions of what people are doing or how they appear or a feeling?
Is it a list of judgements of a thing versus list of evidence to support that judgment?
Yeah. I would say that, listen, this isn't, you know, we're being kind of catty about this in terms of, you know, like this is one of those universally considered bad things, but this is also very hard. This is one of the reasons why it's difficult to be a good writer. Because we, as humans are used to, when you describe something, you know, like, "Oh, I went on a date with this guy. Oh, cool. Let's say like, well he's tall and he has Brown hair and blue eyes and he's got a scar on his eyebrow. And,uhe, you know, plays the saxophone and he works as a barista." Like you're telling me, like, you're just listing this stuff about a guy who is a real living, breathing person, but that's a totally acceptable thing that we do all the time. Uyou know, a friend of mine is like, "Oh, let me tell you about my new boyfriend. I don't need poetic soliloquy about, you know, his feelings on the bass versus the alto saxophones,uand why he prefers one and the childhood trauma surrounding that. Umou know, I just like to know that he plays the saxophone. So that's a normal thing for us with how we talk and how we describe things to people in everyday life. However, when you're doing that, you're looking at your friend as they're doing that and you're and you know, says like, "'Oh, he, you know, plays the saxophone and he's a barista.' Rekka rolled her eyes. This was Kaelyn's fourth barista of the year. Second one that played the saxophone. Where was she finding these men?" But Rekka knows that that's going on in her head.
Right. But you put that in the story and suddenly there's context again.
Exactly. But for regular conversation, you don't need context. And hopefully if that's what Rekka's actually thinking, she's not going to start narrating her internal thoughts to me, because then I'm going to–
Oh! That's a great idea. I'm going to start doing that now.
Um so it's a hard thing to do just because of the way we're used to conducting ourselves in our daily life. We don't need to, you know, I don't need to describe to Rekka the fact that I'm sitting in my kitchen right now and I'm wearing a sweater because it's finally getting a little bit chilly here, but I still have some of the windows cracked open... Because one, Rekka doesn't need to know that two, she can see me in the sweater and probably see the window behind me. In stories you don't have that. So you need to make your sentences do as much work as they can, otherwise you are just describing lists of actions, emotions, and feelings.
And this might be a great opportunity to take the book that made you feel the most feelings, and give it a skim and see how their prose sounds compared to yours in areas where you're being told this needs some showing versus telling. I mean, the best thing to do is to pay more attention to people who are making you feel the way you want your reader to feel when they read your book.
"What Can I do to become a better writer? How should I get started writing?" And my first answer is always you need to read a lot.
Always. Never stop reading.
Really. Never stop reading, because having all of these things in the back of your head, you know, it's not stealing. Think of it as a research. How did this author, that I really liked this book, how did they handle this problem? How did they make sure, how did they grab me by, you know, the heart and really squeeze it for this one scene?
Like, what did they do that left me in tears here? What did they do that made me stand up and cheer? Why did I stay awake until three in the morning? Because of something I read? You know, so don't think of that as copying. It's not that I think of it as research.
Right. Cause you're not going to take their words and use them in your book. You're going to figure out what they did and find how that parallels what you're trying to do. And that's a good thing, you know? Chances are, they did that too.
Yeah, exactly. So anyway, I'm not sure how much advice that was on Show Don't Tell, but at least hopefully that was some information about why it is important and what people are trying to say when they point it out to you. Yeah. And if this is something you struggle with, don't feel down about that. It's hard. We don't think about practicing writing, but like you really do have to practice writing. Now granted, practicing is doing revisions, but you know, I think we think like you practice piano and then, you know, you don't really have anything to show for it at the end, but practicing can still, you know, it's the same way as like, you know, practicing cake decorating. Maybe it's not great, but you still have a decorated cake at the end of it.
Yeah. And you can use that to look back and say how much you've improved because your next cake has way more skill applied to it because you've learned
Plus cake! And even if it doesn't look pretty, maybe it tastes really good.
Exactly. You know, when you keep writing, that's how you keep improving. You're not going to sit down and plunk out one amazing novel and never write again. And it will need revision and whatever you write is going to need a second draft or is going to need at least another pass. There's little you can do to avoid that. The more that you write, the less often that you will fall upon some of these like quote-unquote rookie mistakes, you'll make all new mistakes of more advanced variety, but you will get better. And reading more, writing more, and you know, getting other people's opinions will help. There are critique groups out there on the internet, you know, that you can join and you'll get feedback of varying harshness and helpfulness, but like, it will help you. When you critique other people's work, it will help you critique your own work. Because if you can sit back and read it like you were reading someone else's work, how am I going to help this person understand what I'm trying to say I think it needs? Because sometimes you need to rubber ducky your own thoughts a little bit.
You know, at the end of the day, you hope that you get to a point where somebody puts a note in there of show, don't tell and you go, Oh, of course, right. You don't just sit down and be awesome at writing. That's not how this works. As I said, hopefully that at least kind of clear some of the mystery around the "show, don't tell me."
Hopefully clear some of the frustrations so that, you know, when you see those words, if they aren't paired with concrete advice, then you can back up and take a look from, you know, a little bit further away from where it is in your mind and say, "okay, what, what do I think I'm communicating that I'm not communicating?"
Because that's what it comes down to a lot of the times, it's like, okay, you say this person's great. Or you say this monster is scary, but –
You know that in your head for these reasons and you're not showing it to me, the reader.
Well, I think that's, that's pretty much it. I guess that's what we got there.
We did manage to go on at length, despite me thinking it was going to be pretty straightforward. I got a whole bunch of these really straightforward quickie episodes planned that are going to be at least the normal length, if not longer. So if you're looking forward to those, make sure that you are subscribed to the podcast. If you have questions about any other kinds of editing tips that you've received in your manuscripts that you were like, "what, what?"
What is this note?
"Kaelyn, Explain this to me, please. Tell me I don't have to do whatever this is saying. "I Think did it say rewrite? Is it saying revise? No, I don't want to just tell me it's perfect." if you have any questions for us about these random topics that editors mark up in your manuscripts, and you're not really sure what they mean, or you want to know how to avoid them in the future, or advice you see that you still don't quite understand, just let, let us know, for sure, @WMBcast on Instagram or Twitter.
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That's very true.
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