Writing Excuses 10.23: Can You Tell Me How to Show?
Key points: How can you use the right words to evoke an image in the reader’s mind? Use the character’s POV, let their emotions color the words they use. Showing takes more words, so know whether you want to use a paragraph or a page. Use words, pacing, to create an emotion, to create tension. Use punctuation and grammar to reflect natural pauses. Create tone and mood through the length of your sentences. Watch “suddenly” — it delays. Just saying it is more jarring. Pay attention to what the character would focus on, and use that to introduce the scene. Pay attention to the first thing you mention, and the last thing you linger on. Think about how evocative you want your prose to be — sparse or flowery? Match your audience, the genre expectations, and the characters. Make your descriptions do multiple things at once. Remember, POV means seeing the world through the eyes of a particular character.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Can You Tell Me How to Show?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And this is our show, don’t tell podcast. Specifically, we’re talking about painting a scene. We decided we were going to split this into two parts. The first one we’re going to talk about is the actual paint, the words that we’re using. How can you as a writer use the right, proper words and how can you evoke an image with those words in your reader’s mind?
[Howard] Polysyllabic adverbs.
[Brandon] Okay. Polysyllabic adverbs. Okay. All right.
[Mary] Well, now we’re done. I’m sure that…
[Mary] All the time.
[Howard] Surreptitiously is one of my very favorites.
[Mary] Yeah. Audio engineers… Audiobook narrators hate you for that word.
[Mary] So the things… When you’re describing anything, there are multiple different ways you can describe it. The emotion of the person who is describing it will often color the words that they use. So that’s one thing you can do is you can use your character’s POV. But when I’m saying that it can color the way you’re describing something, I can say something is brown, shiny and brown, glossy and brown, slimy and brown, these are all things that have a sheen to them, but they evoke very different images.
[Howard] Well, the example that I coughed up there, surreptitiously, is a great example because if you say, “He glanced around surreptitiously,” that is telling. If you say, “He peered left, took a breath, and stepped back. Then peered right, and glanced straight ahead and snuck across the hall leaning low,” you’ve described surreptitious behavior in a way that shows me what is happening.
[Dan] Yeah… You… I…
[Howard] The word surreptitiously doesn’t evoke any of the suspense.
[Dan] That is why a lot of people will tell you not to use adverbs. There’s nothing inherently evil about the adverb, except that when you use one, you are avoiding all of that other better stuff.
[Brandon] Yeah. You’re working… You have to work harder to get rid of the adverbs, so it’s a suggestion, get rid of it. One thing I always like to tell my class before we get too far into discussion of this is that showing, as Howard just proved, takes more words. Telling takes fewer. People always say, in the industry, show, don’t tell. We’ve said on the podcast before, it’s know when to show and when to tell. Because you will want to tell some of the time.
[Mary] Well, actually, point of fact, you are telling all of the time because it’s written words.
[Brandon] Right, right. You’re going to decide where you know what, I need to cover this really fast. I’m going to use a paragraph where I could use a page. A lot of other times you’ll say, “I’m going to use a page where I could use a paragraph” to do what Howard just said, to show them in the scene acting surreptitious, being nervous.
[Mary] I actually think the better advice comes from Inigo Montoya, which is “Is too much, let me sum up.” There are times when it… The showing gets in the way of the action, and you just have to tell people. There are times when you want to take the time and relish it and build that emotional tension.
[Dan] That’s why, is because you’re trying to create a certain emotion. Like with Howard’s example right now, he was trying to create tension. When you draw a moment out like that, adding extra words has a specific function beyond just adding extra words, it takes time. It forces the reader to focus their attention on a single moment in time, and just the mere process of doing that creates tension.
[Mary] Going back to my love of puppetry, there’s a thing that we call… So focus indicates thought, breath indicates emotion. Breath specifically in writing relates to the rhythm in which we do things. So this is not only how long a character is looking at something, you tend to linger on things that you need to engage with more, but how long you’re describing something, but also the actual sentence structure. You’ll hear people say, “Short, choppy sentences are required for action scenes.” Which I think is related to the breathing pattern of short, choppy sentences.
[Brandon] Right. That’s a good idea. Or a good theory.
[Mary] It’s a good theory.
[Brandon] No, I think it might be right.
[Dan] The opening page, I think, of The Devil’s Only Friend, when John Cleaver… Which is the new John Cleaver book. He is describing how he’s so normal and how everything he does, he’s got his life under control. Then there’s one paragraph that is in a single sentence and just goes on the entire time with no periods to give you a respite. Which is a specific way of showing he’s lost control over this.
[Howard] I love that technique because it’s poetic. That run-on sentence has a subtext to it that is like a poem. In fact, were there commas and semicolons in there?
[Howard] There’s… A comma is kind of a sharp thing.
[Mary] Actually, there’s a…
[Howard] Visually, that creates a… For me, anyway…
[Mary] For me… I mean, this again is coming at it from an audiobook narrator standpoint, but for me, there’s a mechanical thing that we teach people to do when they’re first learning to read aloud. That is, you see a comma and you count to one. You see a period, you count to two. A paragraph, you count to three. What this is doing, is it is forcing the person who is learning to read to do the natural pauses that one does when speaking. Punctuation and grammar, in general, I think is designed as a way to codify something that we do naturally. Since I have actually read the scene that Dan is talking about, because I love The Devil’s Only Friend, that run-on sentence has the effect… It’s not even a run-on sentence, it’s actually…
[Howard] It’s just a long, well-written sentence.
[Dan] It’s just a really long one.
[Mary] But what it has the effect of is someone who is not stopping to catch their breath. Visually, you get that as well. So that’s… Again, when we’re trying to create a tone and a mood, one of the things you can look at is the length of your sentences. The first sentence of Glamour in Glass, which I have memorized because I have had to hand write it into so many books because it was left out, but that’s another story that I’m not bitter about, is… Tells you immediately the pace of the book. “There are few things in this world that can simultaneously delight and dismay in the same manner as a formal dinner party.” This is very long, it’s very formal. It says you are in for something that is slower paced. Whereas… Do you remember the first sentence of that off the top of your head?
[Dan] Of Devil’s Only Friend?
[Mary] Yeah, it’s real…
[Dan] “I’m fine now.”
[Mary] It’s so concise.
[Brandon] A counter example that our friend Dave, one of our writing instructors, brought out in his class that I’ve always remembered. Hasn’t stopped me from using it, but it’s made me think, is the word suddenly. Because suddenly has the effect of delaying the thing you’re going to say is suddenly happening. That if you simply write the thing happening, it’s actually more jarring and more sudden to the reader that stopping and saying suddenly. Which is a really interesting thing when you think about it.
[Mary] Although one of the things visually that you often have to do is start that jarring thing in a new paragraph to set it off visually. But also to have that moment of… That inhalation.
[Brandon] That’s what the suddenly does.
[Howard] Suddenly is a word that typically gets used… I think best when a character is describing a thing to another character. This was happening to me and this and this and this and then suddenly whatever as something is being recounted. You are being shown somebody tell a thing.
[Brandon] Another thing I wanted to jump in here and mention, you glossed over the focus of the character as the two things you learned from… Several of the things you learned from puppetry. But ever since that discussion about puppetry years ago on the podcast, when we first had you on, I’ve been thinking of that as a writing rule for myself, in that I wasn’t able to verbalize why my students’ writing… Sometimes the paragraphs felt reversed. They would start with the wrong sentence. They’ve learned to start with a topic sentence. New writers sometimes, you’ve learned to start with a topic sentence, but then you get into by the end what the character’s actually paying attention to. That feels wrong to a reader. The character, what they are focused on, should be what you’re introducing your paragraph or your scene with, rather than here’s the scene and here’s what the character is looking at.
[Howard] That’s a better explanation of why my upside down trick works, is sometimes just taking the description and taking the last thing you wrote and putting it first and rereading the paragraph and see what happens to it.
[Dan] We… For a while, in our writing group, we had a film student. I remember him critiquing a paragraph that I had written. That was the problem. The way he phrased it, rather than you have a topic sentence and you don’t get to the character stuff until the end, is he said, “You’ve written this as if it were a camera shot. The camera is panning across and slowly building up to the important thing.” Which works in film and doesn’t work in prose. You need to do it the other way around.
[Mary] Right. Because you need to be with the character, and the character has already seen the thing while the camera is panning.
[Brandon] Students do this sometimes even in the same sentence. The first part of the sentence is not what the character’s focused on, the second part is, and I see this all the time in my student writing.
[Mary] There’s something… A technique that I’m calling circling which is that… Generally speaking, when you’ve got a list of things, a list of… Whether it’s a list of sentences, but… Of things your character is noticing, whatever it is. The first thing that your character sees is the thing that catches their attention. The last thing in that list is the thing that they linger on. So one of the tricks you can use sometimes is to circle back and have the important thing be both the first and the last thing. So like the example that I use when I’m teaching is “The man walked into the room. There was a blonde sitting on the chair. She had hair down to the base of her spine and legs that wouldn’t stop.” So what I’m doing is sees the woman, sees the chair, comes back to the woman.
[Brandon] Excellent. Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Dan] Yeah. Our book of the week this week comes… It’s the debut novel by Shallee McArthur who is a friend of mine and a writer I’ve worked with a lot at conventions and stuff. It’s called The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. It is a YA science fiction near future about… Essentially, they have developed a technology where you can store your memories in objects and then one of these objects gets stolen from the main character and she has to figure out what she doesn’t remember and why. It’s a really, really cool world building. I loved the character herself, Genesis Lee. Really fun story. So. The Unhappening of Genesis Lee by Shallee McArthur, read by Cassandra Morris. This you can get on audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can get a 30 day free trial which will allow you to pick up The Unhappening of Genesis Lee for free.
[Brandon] Now one thing I really always want to talk about when we say painting a scene is making the choice about how flowery you want your prose to be. I say flowery… That word is bad. But there is… There are ways to write really great prose that is very evocative, but is not very clear. Sometimes you get a writer in a writing group who’s trying to write prose like this, and the rest of the writers just think that that’s bad prose, when it’s not. They’re writing from a different… They’re coming from a different direction. Other times, you have the genre fiction writer… This is more often in a class in an MFA program. They’re like, “Your prose is terrible,” when the prose is not terrible, or the prose… They’re trying to push it in a different direction.
[Dan] I was on a panel at a convention just a couple weeks ago where somebody pointed out Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner were contemporaries and wrote at the same time. Their writing styles could…
[Brandon] Very different.
[Dan] Not be more different. So just because something is more sparse or more flowery doesn’t make it bad or better. It just means you are writing in a different way for a different audience.
[Brandon] I often point out me and Pat Rothfuss. Pat is a lot more flowery than I am. His prose is beautiful and I love it. I try for a very spare prose, I try for very clear prose.
[Mary] I think what we’re looking at here is audience expectation. That it’s not just the kind of prose that you’re trying to write, but who you are trying to write for. A lot of times, there are genre expectations…
[Brandon] There are.
[Mary] That come with that, that certain… Certain time periods, certain types of fiction will… People want different things. We’ve talked in previous podcasts about how a lot of times in YA you are much more upfront about this is what my character is thinking. Because it’s a different audience.
[Brandon] It is.
[Mary] So when you’re sitting down to write, this is one of the reasons we talk about knowing who you are writing for is that you need to know what sort of audience expectations you’re going… And this doesn’t have to be market research. This can be like, “I’m writing this for my friend Beth who likes this kind of book and she represents this larger market sample.”
[Brandon] Right. Or even I’m writing this book for people who like this book, this book, this book, and this book. The things that I love to read that are like that, that’s the sort of thing I want to be doing.
[Howard] One of the things that I find… I find fun to experiment with and I rarely have time in the prose that I write to take something that I am describing that is beautiful and deciding to describe it using words that I find beautiful versus using words that I find unwieldy or ugly. Because those two techniques convey a different emotion. Depending on what I’m trying to accomplish, they can be equally powerful in getting the message across.
[Brandon] You’re trying… Or you’re bringing the podcast back to one of the first things we mentioned. Which is you gotta let your descriptions evoke your character’s emotion at the moment. A lot of the best descriptions do things like that, but not always just that. I jotted down a quick three. You can use descriptions to evoke your character’s emotional state, but you can also evoke their culture and their status in that culture by the mere way they describe the world. You can also evoke their history, what’s been going on in their life lately, by the way they describe the world or… You can do so much with descriptions. You shouldn’t let them just accomplish getting across what something looks like.
[Mary] You can actually do all three of those.
[Brandon] Yes, you can.
[Mary] Which is… When we talk about… We talk about POV all the time. I think that a lot of times we forget that it really does mean point of view. But when you’re talking about tight third person point of view, which is the current fashion…
[Brandon] Yeah. Or first-person. Or tight first-person.
[Mary] Or tight first-person, you are talking about seeing the world of that story through… From the point of view of a particular character. That means not just from where they are standing, but from where they have stood in the past. So that is going to affect how they see things. So like the words that I use to describe something are going to be very different to… If I were describing the room that we’re in, I would describe it very differently than a fireman who would see all of the books and be horrified at the…
[Brandon] Or from me. I mean, you would describe this room… We’re at your house right now, and you would attach emotional significance to a lot of these things. Whereas I would not. Not having… These aren’t my things, so instead I would be looking at them from a curiosity stake. Oh, I wonder why this is here, or I’ve heard of that book, or things like that.
[Howard] A great contrast that I think is easy for the listener to imagine is the homicide detective looking at a murder scene, cataloging what has happened, versus a family member of the deceased walking in and discovering this. Those are two completely different experiences. What… I mean, if you want to write something really powerful, a scene in which the homicide detective is looking at a murder scene and then recognizes the person. Then the description of the scene changes as this person’s reaction to the scene changes.
[Mary] I think that that is… That sort of difference is a lot of the places that we see a disconnect between… A disconnection between the prose and the character. Like when we have a character who is… When we see that flowery language, it’s not that the language is flowery, it’s not even necessarily that it’s wrong for the audience. It might be that it doesn’t fit the way the character would see the world. Which I think brings us to…
[Brandon] It does. Our writing exercise this week is doing actually exactly this.
[Mary] So what I want you to do is I want you to sit in a room. Any room you want to be in. I want you to describe the room. I want you to do this for half an hour. About five, maybe 10 minutes into it, you’ll probably think, “Mary, I hate you. I can’t possibly describe anything else.” If you keep going, what’s going to start happening is that you will start noticing the little details. A lot of times, those little telling details are the things that make a room very specific. So this is an exercise I actually still do all the time myself. What you will eventually train yourself to notice the little details first. So, having done that… That’s 30 minutes of writing. Now what I want you to do is describe the exact same room, but describe it as if it is in a specific genre style of fiction. So maybe it’s a film noir… It’s noir. Maybe it’s sci…
[Brandon] Epic fantasy.
[Mary] Epic fantasy.
[Howard] Police procedural.
[Mary] Police procedural. Romance. Take a specific genre and try to describe the exact same room, trying to evoke that genre. Then… You don’t have to do it for 30 minutes this time. You can just do 250 words.
[Howard] Make it a scene.
[Mary] Not a scene, because we’re just thinking about description. Then the last go around is that I want you to describe the same room again, but in your gen… In the genre of the story that you are working on.
[Brandon] And from the viewpoint of one of your characters.
[Mary] Yes. From the viewpoint of… Preferably your point of view… One of your point of view characters. See what you can do. See how differently those descriptions wind up being.
[Brandon] Wow. That’s going to be a great exercise. You guys should totally do that. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.