John was hungry, and the thirty-minute pizza place had now crossed the forty-five-minute mark. Not having eaten since the granola bar he scarfed down that morning between his apartment door and the bus stop three blocks away, his stomach was shrinking with each passing second.
So, when the doorbell rang, John ran for it and didn’t even bother to look through the peephole. His first mistake. Not slamming the door shut as putrid fumes blasted him into a state he’d call “no longer hungry,” his second.
However, running out the back door and hopping the fence in an attempt to get away from the vile thing that was now chasing him—that was smart.
Is this the opening to my new novel?
Nope. But I used it as an illustration in a class I just taught on showing vs. telling. As you’ve probably surmised, that was the showing bit. Now it’s not horrible, right? You still get a feel for the guy being hungry, you sense his eagerness and the panic that ensued as he faced a monster.
The fact that you didn’t know there would be a monster added that punch of surprise!
But it falls short because so much of it is one form of “telling.” Yes, there are two kinds of telling I think authors should be aware of, but we’ll get to the other in a minute. I want to show you what a few changes to this will do for it. Though minor, they pack a big punch!
Like clockwork, as John’s grandmother’s mantel clock struck the quarter hour, his stomach rumbled and whined at the lack of nourishment. Still no pizza. The celery stick in his hand served only to keep a sense of starvation at bay. And he’d almost polished it off already. His stomach growled again. This time, thirteen minutes early.
Ding dong! John vaulted the coffee table in his dash to the door and slid the deadbolt open without even a cursory glance at the peephole. He snatched up the cash waiting on the entry table and jerked open the door in one fluid movement. “Wow! Thanks—”
The money fluttered to the floor.
As putrid fumes blasted him, John wished he could escape the creature’s clutches as well. Instead, he blinked once more at the… what was it? Monster. That’s what they’re called.
That’s all it took. He turned and bolted through the house, out the back door, and half-vaulted, half-straddled the fence before falling to the other side and writhing in agony.
Well, until the inexorable approach of lumbering, thundering footsteps grew closer. Then self-preservation overrode pain, and he took off running down the street. Were the screams his? Probably. Did he care? Nope.
What made the difference between the two mini-scenes?
In the second one, I deleted almost every state of being verb and added more vivid words. First, I showed him getting to the door. I showed his hunger. Then, I showed the withering effects of that noxious monster breath. And finally, I showed him hearing the monster coming for him.
In the first, I just told you about it. Sure, I used few vivid words here and there, but I couched them between passive-feeling sentences that almost always signal a bit of “telling” ahead.
So what is “telling” then? Well, it’s a bit self-explanatory. Telling is:
Sometimes you should “tell.”
For example, we usually don’t want to make a reader experience every footstep across a house or every month between the real points of action. Definitely inform the reader of the passage of time but even then, do it creatively so it doesn’t feel like someone said, “Oh, and six months passed.”
Written like that, the reader feels like they missed out on something.
Look at that paragraph up there. “…the vile thing that was now chasing him.” This feels passive. Why? Because we don’t get to experience it with the character. The author, in this case, me, has decided to inform you of the action as if apart from it. Again, this isn’t the classic, textbook definition of passive, but every time I read a book that has, “John was tired,” I feel like tiredness has been thrust upon John instead of exuding from him. It “feels” passive even if it technically isn’t.
We’re also not being shown it. It’s the difference between seeing the live-action movie on the big screen and having someone who saw it there inform us of what happened on our way to work the next day. Boring.
What’s the other kind of telling? I’ll tell you!
Another word for it is “explaining.” You can see one kind of explaining when you read sentences like, “He clapped with his hands.” What else would he clap with? This redundant verbosity can become annoying if overdone. For a funny example by Johnny Standley, watch THIS parody of a preacher preaching on “Little Bo Peep.” Hint: “Pray tell me what else could they wag!” is just one example in here.
The other kind of “explaining” will drive an astute reader batty—and possibly away from your work. Too often we bog down our stories with excessive information to “help” our readers “get” what we mean. This is unnecessary, ruins the reader’s experience, weakens the story, and frankly, insults the reader’s intelligence. Craft strong sentences that can stand without those “helpful” words.
- Explain what your reader can’t know or figure out for him or herself
- Don’t insult the reader with the obvious.
- Show without adding to it. It ruins the pacing.
Here are a few examples of why you shouldn’t:
So, what are the 3 quick & easy ways to spot telling in your novel?
- Do a document search for all state of being verbs (am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been). Outside of dialogue, whenever you can replace a state of being verb with a more active verb, you can cut both passive (or passive feeling) writing AND telling just by swapping it out!
- Look for the word “then.” Whenever you see “then,” “explanation” or other “telling” usually follows. Try showing what happened next instead of telling the reader about it
- Look at your action beats and your subtext places. Those are both sure fire ways to spot where we “explain” by redundancy… “she slammed the book on the table in anger.” Or, we explain by droning on about what we’re sure the reader missed—where we say, “Get it?” after our “joke.”
Of course, it’s quick and easy to spot telling in your novel. Fixing… I made no promises there. Just remember: where telling is, passivity usually follows.