Posts Tagged describing a character
If there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …
It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?
First, what is ‘show not tell’?
Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.
So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.
Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’
Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.
And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.
A big difference.
Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.
Telling instead of showing
Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’
Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.
Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.
Other things to consider about show not tell
Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.
Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.
There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.
Your reader is a witness
We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.
Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde
Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?
The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.
(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:
She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.
Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.
A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.
I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.
A hole in my knowledge – and the clue
It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.
And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.
Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:
- The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
- The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
- So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.
And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.
There’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!