BRING YOUR STORY TO LIFE (SHOW, DON'T TELL)
Synthesized by Lynn T. Fazenbaker
NOTE: Examples in this handout, by virtue of their being already thought of and written down, are no longer fresh, original, and exciting. Come up with your own stuff!
The skeleton of your story. Flesh it out with muscle, not fat.
* A lively, interesting plot is easier to bring to life.
* When following any suggestion, don’t force a character to do something or go somewhere just to "bring it to life." Your characters, setting, and plot must intertwine without extraneous scenes and complications that go nowhere.
Let your readers get to know your characters the same way they get to know real people.
Names and Nicknames
1. Take advantage of the fact that you must name your characters to pick names that fit their personalities and ethnicities, yet are unique and non-stereotypical.
2. Take advantage of other characters in your story having to refer to each other. What other characters call each other can reveals facets of both.
3. Don't forget about nicknames.
* A girl can insist on being called Rebecca instead of Becky.
* A bully can call your character a mean name. Grandma can call a character Alexander instead of Alex, making him feel she expects a lot from him, while that annoying girl who has a crush on him can call him Ally.
1. Let actions define characters.
"Lucinda could not sit still,"
"Lucinda knelt on her chair, then sat. Knelt again and sat. Experimented with crossing her legs in every conceivable manner."
2. Use fresh, unique actions. Instead of giving Lucinda a common nervous habit, like drumming her fingers, have her pull out hairs and tie them into animal shapes the way clowns do with balloons.
3. Let characters define actions. If Lucinda hates clowns and balloons, don’t give her the above habit. Find one that suits her personality.
1. Dialogue is arguably the most powerful tool a writer has. Don’t waste it.
2. Use different vocabulary levels, word choices, sentence lengths, expressions, speech impediments, and dialects to reveal character. (Use impediments and dialects like spice; don’t overdo them.)
3. Make each character sound unique. Can you eliminate the speech tag and still tell who’s speaking?
4. Put your character's emotions in his words, not in the punctuation, not in the speech tag, and not in an adverb following the speech tag.
"Stop!" he yelled angrily,
“Cut it out, or I swear, I’ll pound you,” he said.
5. Actions can be used instead of speech tags to efficiently identify the speaker and further define him.
“I don’t care,” Mark said indifferently, but deep inside, he cared a lot,
“I don’t care.” Mark shrugged, but underneath his desk, through his lined jeans, his fingernails gouged his thighs.
6. Don't use "talking head" dialogue to reveal background information. If both characters already know the information, don’t reveal it through contrived dialogue:
“Hi Bob, my darling husband. I’m going to work, now, as I usually do at 7 p.m., and I’ll be back as usual at 5 a.m.”
“OK, my loving wife, Julia. As you know, I try to be cheerful about your job, but I still wish you’d quit and spend more time with Derek, your 10-year-old son from your first marriage, who is dyslexic, since he and I don’t get along."
Internal Thoughts and Dialogue
1. Using external actions and dialogue that go against your character’s internal thoughts and dialogue can show dishonesty, ambiguity, disrespect, fear of other character, etc.
“Let’s watch it together.”
“OK.” Someday. When I’m old, too.
2. You can only reveal your viewpoint character’s internal thoughts and dialogue. Your viewpoint character must guess at other characters’ thoughts, or you must make other characters act in a way that it’s obvious to your readers what the other characters are likely thinking.
1. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs to describe emotions. “He was embarrassed.” “She turned away angrily.”
2. You know when someone’s sad, angry, happy without someone at your elbow, telling you. How do you know? Show your characters behaving that way, and let your readers infer the emotion.
* Use unique actions
“Her face turned red,” “His fists clenched,” “Her heart leapt,” are cliché.
Try, “She ducked behind the bush to camouflage her face among the roses,” “His fists resembled the mallet he’d been hunting for an hour,” “Her heart squirted up and fluttered down.”
* Images that spring from your unique character, setting, or plot are most likely to be original, revealing, and memorable. Try having your character’s actions contradict his spoken feelings (like Mark above).
* Show what a character is imagining
"Jason began twisting the doorknob. Why do I bother coming home? he thought. I know what’ll happen. I’ll turn on the TV. Mom’ll turn it off. I’ll storm to my room. She’ll yell at me. I won’t come down for supper. Sissy will cry and start hanging on Mom’s sweatshirt. Mom’ll push her away, apologize, and scream through the door about how I’m ruining the family." How is he feeling? Do you feel it, too?
* Have a character distract himself by concentrating on some insignificant detail to intensify the feeling
“The man trapped her in the alley and grinned. A toothful grin, it would have been, if he had teeth. Her heart climbed her ribcage. Toothful. Strange word. She backed into ooze and slipped but didn’t fall. He did have one partial top tooth, she noticed as he shuffled forward. Canine? Incisor? One of the two, she was sure. He grabbed her coat, and a button popped off. His breath reeked of spoiled ham. She imagined him as a small boy in a dentist chair, ignoring a lecture on brushing a full minute, all surfaces.”
3. Use word rhythm to reinforce emotion. Describing a person in love, you could make the rhythm meander through a long sentence. Describing an angry person, you can make the rhythm harsh and short.
4. Try using props from the setting. “When I walked in, wadded papers surrounded Evan’s desk like ammunition for a snowball fight. His hair stood on end, twisted, and he turned his glare from his chewed pencil halves towards me. Five-year-old Bonnie, usually a chatterbox, cowered under her pillow.”
5. Don’t forget that emotions can be mixed, complex, or ambiguous, and that there are degrees to emotions. Show them that way.
6. Saying “Emotion filled Character Name” is cheating. Work harder!
7. Use exclamation points sparingly. Too many are a mark of an amateur.
* Active Description (see separate section later).
Don’t bore your readers into skipping over it.
* Have characters interact with environment.
“A wooden bat lay in the clotted dirt near home plate,”
“Amy snatched up the bat, knocked the dirt clods from her cleats, took a step, and pounded home plate with a wooden thud.”
* Have the environment act on characters.
“The sun was hot, but the wind gusts were cold,”
“Jeff swiped sweat from his forehead before angling his cap against the sun. A gust of wind slapped his left cheek red.”
* Can your characters talk incidentally about the setting without it sounding like “talking head” dialogue?
“Hand me that eraser, which is on my desk.” “Your wooden desk by the window?” “Yes, but don’t let it fall down this black register next to me into the furnace duct, where it will melt.”
“Hand me my eraser?”
“Sure.” I grabbed it off his desk and glanced out the window.
Almost dark, I better head home. I tried erasing a wood grain on his desk, then whipped around.
“Here, think fast.” I chucked him the eraser. He missed and it bounced across the black rectangle at his feet. “I said, ‘Hand it to me.’
We don’t need it going down the register into the furnace duct and melting, for Pete’s sake.” (Note: This is longer, but look how many other things it does with character, emotion, etc.? Sometimes more is less.)
* Active Description (see separate section below).
Put all your words to work; don’t let them lie around sunning themselves, eating Bon-Bons, and looking pretty.
* Telling not showing easily finds its way into physical descriptions of characters and settings.
* Don’t do an info dump. Reveal a little bit here, a little bit there. Do you notice everything about a person or a place in one gulp? Or a little now, a little in a minute when she smiles, a little tomorrow, when he points out how he and his mom chose the room color together?
* Charles Dickens is dead! Save long, flowery descriptions of setting and character for literary novels. This is the age of sound bites, 200 channels with remote control, and instant gratification. Most people have no patience, time, or mindset to wade through description. They want action, fast.
* Consider all five senses, not just vision. Smell especially is evocative but often ignored. Can you combine senses? “I pick up a gold leaf that fell between us. It smells more green than brown.” Use active voice. (“The brightness struck her,” not “She was struck by the brightness.”)
* Use active verbs. (Avoid forms of “to be.”)
* Avoid sentence transformations that delay the subject. (“It was this,” “There was that.”)
* However, use passive voice, “to be” verbs, and sentence transformations occasionally for variety, pacing, and poetic effect.
* Move as much of your description from adjectives and adverbs into strong nouns and verbs.
1. Make your elemental sentence structure strong enough to support the adjectives and adverbs you do use.
2. Make your character or setting show off qualities incidentally without hammering your readers over the head with what things look like.
3. Set your description in motion.
4. Create a mood or reveal character at the same time—efficient use of words.
The skinny man wore an orange sweatshirt that was too small for him.
*The bright yellow wall was almost hidden behind dusty picture frames. She had on an old plaid stocking cap with a few remaining tassles.
**The sleeves of his orange sweatshirt reached in vain for his bony wrists. Dusty picture frames blotted out the bright yellow of the wall. When she swung around, the leftover tassels from her plaid stocking cap whipped my nose. Compare the elemental sentence structures. Which is more interesting?
sleeves reached for wrists.
wall was hidden
frames blotted out yellow.
she had on cap
tassels whipped nose.
Also, do you get the feeling that … The man’s sleeves are more self-conscious of how he looks than he is? The picture frames are a little sinister, blotting out that sunshine-like wall? She is rather careless, wearing that tassel-bare hat and swinging around without taking into consideration that what she's wearing might hit someone? Try converting common adjectives to nouns to emphasize the quality you wish to show.
The sun shone down over the green grass below. His blue eyes startled her. She traced the small hand of the baby.
The sun shone over the green below. The blue of his eyes startled her. She traced the smallness of the baby's hand. Compare the elemental sentence structures. Which is more interesting?
sun shone over grass
sun shone over green.
eyes startled her
blue startled her.
she traced hand
she traced smallness.
Use descriptive adjectives rather than evaluative ones. Despite the cliché, “Her face turned red” is better than “She was embarrassed.” Convert adverbs into adjectives when possible. Instead of “She sighed impatiently at the bus moving slowly in front of her,”
“She sighed, impatient with the slow-moving bus in front of her.” Get rid of “default” and redundant adjectives.
The yellow sun shone in the blue sky over the green grass.
He wore blue denim overalls.
Her face flushed red.
She wore a blue indigo sweater.
They touched the cold ice.
His short blond crewcut sticking up made him look scared.
The sun shone in the sky over the grass.
He wore overalls.
Her face flushed.
They touched the ice.
She wore an indigo sweater.
His blond crewcut made him look scared.
Because, by “default,” we picture yellow sun, blue sky, green grass, and blue denim overalls. Faces flush no other color but red. By definition, indigo is a shade of blue and a crewcut is a short haircut that sticks up. All ice is cold. Eliminating these adjectives does not change the picture. Get rid of “in the sky” in that first sentence, too, since skies are generally where suns are kept.
* Create original similes, metaphors, and imagery.
description through character. Danny the immature tomboy is shopping for a
dress to wear to a wedding. Which description comes from an immature tomboy
instead of Generic Anybody? Which description shows the setting? Which description
shows how she feels about the dress?
“Two days before Christmas in the crowded dress section of a store in the mall, I find a green dress that hangs instead of clings. It buttons down the front. It’s plain with bumpy vertical lines. The sleeves and skirt are scalloped. It has a belt.”
“I yank my way through some dresses and uncover one that dulls the jingle, jingle of Christmas carols, the mrarmle, mrarmle of shopping females, the skink, skink of sliding hangers.
It’s green as summer leaves, as Potpurri’s eyes. It’s hang-y, not cling-y. It buttons down the front like a boy’s shirt—no long zipper in the back. It’s not lacy or pearly or flowery. It feels like Ruffles potato chips; the lines run straight up and down. The bottoms of the sleeves and skirt ripple like those big wavy-mouthed clams on the ocean floor. And it has a belt, like my jeans.”
*A friend of mine was supposed to “add description,” but she didn’t know why her description (including a sentence like this) seemed to intrude in her scene instead of enhance it. I suggested she try sneaking in description while creating a mood.
**This vivid image came from this same friend (before the above assignment). It’s stuck with me for five years now.