I write stuff for kids...and muse on writing, children's books, and the publishing industry in general

Monday, November 21, 2011

Physical Telling - Do you do it?

(Source)
It came as a complete shock to me one day when my critique partner told me: "you're still telling." I'd already had this conversation, of course, so I'd thought I was going along swimmingly. That night I stared at my CP's email, mouth open, eyes bulging while I tried to work out what she meant. I'd spent months learning all about the "show not tell" rule, and even more months eradicating it from my writing. And I'd even added in more interiority as the doctor (*coughs* my critique partner) ordered. Of course, I dived back into the piece of work I'd sent her, and read it all over again. And again.

I still couldn't see anything wrong with it. So I began to research. And here's what I found.

"Physical telling" means something along the lines of the use of the actions of a character to convey their emotions. For example: "I took a deep breath," "I sighed," "I wiped my eyes," "I tapped my foot."

At a superficial level, these phrases aren't necessarily "telling" for the purposes of the "show not tell rule". The phrases are not saying "I was flustered," "I was annoyed," "I was sad," or "I was impatient." The problem is, however, that these types of phrases also aren't showing the reader what the character is actually feeling. They're just telling about an action the character is performing. And they're usually cliche, turning up in most peoples' manuscripts (and numerous times at that). So two big problems, actually. See Mary Kole's post on Physical Cliches here for her take on it.

But physical telling was all I knew how to write. If I couldn't say, "Verity was sad," then how else did I show she was sad if I didn't have her wipe tears off her cheeks?

(Source)
It was back to the drawing board for me (well, to the internet for some research, anyway).

And here's what I came up with:
  • it's ok to have telling in your manuscript, as long as it's the "good" kind
  • "good telling" involves using story context and interiority to paint a three-dimensional picture where you make your reader feel like a part of the story experience, but you don’t exclude them from participating either (per Mary Kole)
  • for the most part, whenever you start to feel the urge to use a physical cliche, replace it with interiority instead (see here for how to do this and a definition of "interiority")
  • when you're narrating a story, particularly in first person, you're in the character's head anyway. So just tell what they're feeling, rather than trying to show it through physical telling and cliches
  • strong dialogue should convey the meaning that physical telling would otherwise give
In summary, read this amazing post by Cristin Terrill. Your writing will thank you for it. It's what finally crystallized everything in my mind, to the point where I'm finally confident I (nearly) have the showing and telling balance right in my manuscript.

How about you: Do you use physical telling in your manuscript? Have you found ways to avoid it (and does it even need to be avoided from your perspective)? What's your best tip on showing not telling?

34 comments:

Mark said...

Aloha Rach,

Thanks for another great post, and I can't wait to dive into the other links.

For me, I was told once or seventeen times to keep it simple, stupid, (you know, the old KISS rule.

For example, my characters only "said" something.. no one cries, sighs, shouts or mouths off. (Then the challenge is to figure out how to show they are sad, angry, etc.)

Anyway, my two cents. Cheers, and aloha!

Aimee L. Salter said...

Great post!

I do use physical telling, but try to keep it as part of a three-dimensional picture, as you've mentioned.

I'll take a look at those articles you've mentioned to see if I can glean better techqniques. Thanks!

Carole Anne Carr said...

Read many of the classics and those books that are considered great today and you'll find much of that old fashioned 'telling'.

Carol Riggs said...

Wow, it's so complex. I do have the physical telling sentences too (and thought I was showing). Sometimes it can be slashed...sometimes it can be shown in other ways. Not sure I always catch them!

Dr. Grumpy Bulldog, PhD of Awesomeness said...

I have to laugh when people go around saying dialog isn't telling. Dialog is LITERALLY TELLING!!! What's another word for "to say"? To TELL! Thus when you're talking you're TELLING.

Basically everything is telling, so just do what you feel like.

Trisha said...

Um, yeah. I do this too. Sigh. I need to read all the links in this post! haha

Gina C said...

great post! and good reminder, too. the characters in my story are constantly sighing. like, seriously. time to zip up their lips ;)

GC

THE SARCASM GODDESS said...

Ugh. I thought I was pretty good at showing, not telling, but now I don't know! And now I'm sad! I mean, I'm wiping the tears from my eyes! I mean...I don't know what I'm supposed to say!

Off to do some editing... a lot of it, I fear.

Abhishek Boinapalli said...

Well this is pretty tough!!

I am not much sure about the difference between telling and showing!!

I just feel using dialogue => showing and the rest => telling!!


Should learn about it:
Another Author

patientdreamer said...

thanks Rach, I need some advice on this one area that I always get hung up about. Will be off to check those links out you mentioned. Thankyou for this Post Rach.

salarsenッ said...

I love the way you summarize in your fourth paragraph. It's very easy to get caught up in 'telling' rather than 'showing', especially when you're writing a full length novel. That's why those CPs are so priceless.

I tend to write a segment and then reread it with the eye of a movie camera. If I can't 'see' what's happening, then I know I must rewrite it.

Cortney said...

I have heard that it's good to both show and tell in your writing. Good post!

E. Arroyo said...

I think the characters internal mindset/monologue has to be balanced with the movement as well. Great post.

Kris Atkins said...

Thanks so much for this great post. I had a professor who one time said that basically telling isn't always bad, because "this is the last telling art" (his exact words). I've been searching for that exact balance that he was indirectly referring to, and your post and links are helping!

Heather said...

Very interesting post and great points to remember. It's great for writers to realize that there is such a thing as good telling!

Len Lambert said...

I adore this very interesting and informative post, Rach! Thank you!

I do use physical telling in my MS. I haven't perfected it and still slide back into 'telling' at times. What I do to avoid this is to engage my characters in dialogues/conversations so that I'm showing what's happening. I 'sprinkle' the important information within the conversation.

Rachael Harrie said...

Hi guys, thanks for all your awesome comments. It's such a tricky balance to meet, isn't it. I guess it comes down to: do what feels right for your own manuscript and style of writing. But it doesn't hurt to pick up as many tips as you can along the way, right! ;)

Hugs,

Rach

Cally Jackson said...

Interesting post. I haven't heard of this referred to as telling before either. I think you can get too hung up on not telling (I wrote a post about it recently).

Balance is key - too much telling doesn't let you into the story, too much 'showing' and your book will be a door stop!

Richard said...

There are different explanations of showing and telling. You're making some good points. It's something we all struggle with. That's why critique partners are so helpful and valuable.

tfwalsh said...

Very good point... I think I'm guilty of that sometimes...

Doctor FTSE said...

Mark (first comment) makes a good point. "He said", "She said" are not part of the narrative. They are stage directions. That's why you use synonyms - "she replied", "he asked" very sparingly, if at all. Readers notice only the pronoun (she/he) or character's name to clue in to who is talking now. If the 2 characters in a dialogue have very different speech patterns/styles you can miss out quite a lot of the "he said"s anyway.
How do you show your characters are sad/angry? You put the sadness or anger into the words they use . . .
And always remember Stephen King's advice. "The Road to Hell is paved with adverbs." Get rid of them ALL.

Annalise Green said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with your critique partner here - it's not telling, it's just cliche showing. IMO showing is not the be-all end-all that people make it out to be, and it's not good to assume that following the show don't tell rule guarantees success. There are many ways to do a bad job of showing (such as use cliche body language), and many great, effective ways to use telling as a storytelling technique.

Joanna said...

Rach, this is super helpful, and to be honest fairly knew to me, so wow I needed to hear your blog post and these comments, to help make some progress!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I recently studied the course material by Margie Lawson. She trains you not to do these things. They are fine, as long as you empower them with inner thoughts. But not just any inner thoughts. The kind that moves the plot, gives you insight into characterization, and is loaded with voice.

Theresa Milstein said...

Thanks for the links. When I began writing, I was all tell. It took me forever to finally get it. But I'm sure I rely too much on physical cues.

Michael Offutt, Expert Critic said...

I think I am guilty of physical telling, but meh. No one is perfect.

carrieannebrownian said...

I grew up reading mostly older books, where there was more direct telling than attempted showing, so that's what I've always tended towards in my own writing. I think there's too much emphasis nowadays on ONLY showing, even at the opening of a book, when I'd like to think most readers NEED to be directly told certain establishing information instead of playing guessing games. A wildly beating heart or pounding fists on a table could suggest different emotions to different readers. I'd prefer to just be told a character is excited, scared, aroused, nervous, etc.

S. L. Hennessy said...

Hey, I awarded you a blog award! Stop by and check it out!
- http://pensuasion.blogspot.com/

Ghenet Myrthil said...

This is SO helpful. I'm definitely guilty of physical telling so I will read up on the posts you've linked to. Thanks!

Annalisa Crawford said...

Hi Rachael, I found your blog by following award links. I'm looking forward to having a proper look around!

Written Words said...

I also get frustrated by this "rule." As Carole Anne Carr pointed out, many classics have "telling" as well as "showing."

Usually, it's good to show, but sometimes, you have to tell.

I think the test is, are you adding to the story? Are you making the situation real for the reader in the most efficient manner? Often, describing every emotion the character feels by "showing" tears or actions just bogs down the story.

Nick Wilford said...

This is a really useful post - and has given me food for thought because what you describe as physical telling, I thought was showing - at least that's the advice I've read before! I'll be looking at this more closely in my writing now.

Richard said...

Hi Rachael,
I've awarded you an award on my blog.
Richard

Doctor FTSE said...

Best novel I ever came across which is entirely "told" but from start to finish uses "telling" to "show" the characters - is "The History Man." (1972) Malcolm Bradbury. This novel contains very few, possible no examples at all of "he thought" or anything equivalent. And as far as I remember none of the characters says anything "sadly", "thoughtfully." etc. They just do and say and their character traits fall out of these. An early example of the "present tense" novel. Suits the narrative in this novel because it uses very few literary "flash backs"

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