January 5, 2015
Twelve Common Mistakes Found in Fiction Manuscripts
Mistake Number Thirteen: Telling Not Showing
This is the thirteenth and last blog discussing some common mistakes found in fiction manuscripts from early readers and chapter books to adult novels of various subgenres. We’re finally coming to the end of this list with the Baker’s Dozen Special entitled “Telling Not Showing.” Although I listed this one last, it’s one of the most common mistakes that surfaces in beginners’ writings, and, frankly, is not that easy to fix unless you know what all “showing” entails.
Too much description and narration
Switching viewpoints in the same scene
A negative tone throughout the story
Infallible or underdeveloped characters
Stilted or unnatural dialogue
No significant conflict
Weak transitions between paragraphs
Passive verbs instead of active verbs
Lack of sensory detail
Lack of emotion or action
Baker’s Dozen: Telling not showing
Telling Not Showing
If you’ve attended any writers’ conferences or read any “how to” books, the one factor that exemplifies excellent writing that you’ve probably heard again and again…and again is to “show” action in your story and not “tell” it.
Now what exactly does that mean: “Show don’t tell”?
I remember in my early years of learning the craft, I wasn’t quite sure what those words meant. I listened to what the experts said, and I studied published fiction, looking for examples of showing not telling. Finally, the light bulb went on, and I got it. I finally realized that the difference between the two is merely the author’s choice of words, either clever or flat, to tell the same story.
So…let’s get to our three examples and examine the flat style of telling a story versus the page-turning style of showing a story. Please note that the storyline is exactly the same in both examples, but the choice of words makes all the difference in the world.
Telling – The riders lined up their horses and looked at the waterfalls about 50 yards away. Above their heads was water over some rocks. It tumbled on more rocks that were even with the riders. The water made big white splashes and then was smooth. The waterfall droplets and sunlight made a rainbow, and off to one side a little stream flowed away from the waterfall and down the mountain. A breeze made the waterfall mist fly everywhere in the air, hitting the riders in the face. Skye was amazed.
Showing – Lining up their horses, the riders sat gawking at nature’s water show half a football field away. Far above their heads, the falls flooded over a table of rocks arrayed on both sides by the greenest trees Skye had ever seen.
The water thundered as it crashed down over more layers of rocks, tumbling, tumbling, until it splashed onto large boulders level with the riders. There, billows of white foam faded into ripples that quickly smoothed into a serene pool as clear as glass.
A rainbow arched in a stream of sunlight. Off to one side the pool overflowed, forming the gushing stream that had found its way down the mountain to form Lackawanna Lake. Fed by the falls, a steady breeze and fine mist saturated the cool air around the riders, welcoming them to the secret and special place.
From SUMMER CAMP ADVENTURE, Zonderkidz, 2010 (Keystone Stables Series Book 4)
Telling – Woody looked at the canteen when the door flew open. It hit the building hard. A small group of boys came running out who were very excited. They ran across the porch and down the steps. Mixed in with the boys were three men who were yelling for the boys to stop. The tallest man held on to his hat because he was afraid it was going to topple off his head.
Showing – The canteen door flew open with hurricane force and smacked against the building. Out barreled a small group of boys bubbling with unbridled excitement. With no immediate plan to stop, they rushed across the porch and stampeded down the steps. Caught in the whirlwind were three helpless men spinning like tops and yelling for the boys to stop. The tallest man was trying desperately to keep his bobbling black Stetson in place.
From THE SECRET OF WOLF CANYON, Sonfire Media, 2010
Telling – Slowly, he pulled her toward him.
“Please let me go,” Louellen said although she didn’t mean it. Her heart pounded loudly as she looked away and thought a lot about this situation.
David touched Louellen’s chin and made her look at him. His nice brown eyes looked at Louellen, and then he kissed her. She had never been kissed like that before.
Louellen closed her eyes and really liked the kiss and David’s affection. She finally felt love from a man. Her heart pounded faster, her thoughts were tender, and she was ready to give in when—
“Oh, nix!” Louellen yanked away from the man. “Oh, dear Gott, forgive me. I must go.” As she cried, she covered her mouth with her hands and ran out of the room.
Showing – Slowly, he drew her close.
“Please let me go,” Louellen said, unsure that she meant it at all. Heart throbbing, she looked down while she wrestled with her own emotions.
Touching her chin, David raised her gaze to his smiling face. His gorgeous brown eyes, pleading for a submissive response, looked deep into Louellen’s longing soul. And then….
He kissed her…softly…gently…tenderly…like she had never been kissed before.
Louellen closed her eyes, the warmth of David’s affection embracing her like a soft summer breeze. For the first time in her life, she felt loved by a man. Heart racing and her mind delirious with tender thoughts, her desire to resist vanished, and she—
“Oh, Dr. David, nix!” Louellen suddenly pulled away. “This cannot be! Oh, dear Gott in himmel, forgive me. I must go.” Eyes flooding with tears, she covered her mouth with her hands and ran out of the room.
From LOVE SONG FOR LOUELLEN, Helping Hands Press, 2012 (The Loves of Snyder County Book 3)
Now, as you compared the telling examples with the showing ones, you should have noticed several distinct differences:
- The telling excerpts lacked poetic descriptive words.
- The telling excerpts sometimes lacked names of important places or people.
- The telling excerpts read like a newspaper report, i.e. “flat” writing.
- The telling excerpts are littered with passive voice and being verbs.
Although the stories are the same in each example, you can easily see how the clever use of words and phrases can offer the writer a contract instead another rejection letter. Check your fiction manuscript using a few of my tips, and you’ll begin to see a story shape up that is a page turner and possibly a best seller.
Keep on writing!