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Words of Hannah Kay

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Showing VS Telling: How To Put Your Reader In The Character's Skin | Guest Post - by Abbie Emmons

100 Days of Sunlight Book Blog Tour: Guest Post

This is a guest post by Abbie Emmons, author of 100 Days of Sunlight. Check out the interview I did with her here!

Please note: the green highlighted text is how you should write and the red is how you should NOT do it.

That's all for now! Enjoy!


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In the world of writing, we always hear the phrase “show, don’t tell.” We know this is a good rule to follow, because it puts the reader “in the skin” of the character and helps them to feel what the character is feeling. But how exactly do we show and not tell? How do we immerse our readers in the story and hold their attention until the last page?

It might sound like a tall order, and that’s because it is. But I believe there is a secret recipe behind every good story, and all you need to do is learn the ingredients to create your own masterpiece.

So in today’s post we’re going to talk about showing vs telling – what this looks like in narration and what this looks like when writing characters’ internal conflict. Ready? Let’s go!

TELLING IN NARRATION
Telling in narration is pretty easy to spot. It’s the difference between “I feel dizzy” and “the room spins around me.” One feels detached, like someone telling you how they feel, and one feels immersive, as if you are the character experiencing dizziness.

“She was tired.” VS “She yawned, barely able to keep her eyes open.”

Is it okay to tell sometimes in narration? Yes. But only when you want your narration to come across sounding testimonial, like the character is telling the reader a story. When people in real life tell us a story, they use “telling” phrases, like “I saw”, “I felt”, “I heard”, etc. But when you want your reader to feel immersed in the characters’ head and experiencing everything in real-time the same way the character is experiencing it, you want to show instead of tell.

SHOWING IN NARRATION
In the example above, I used the classic “I feel dizzy” vs “the room spun around me” – but to get a better idea of what showing in narration looks like, I’m going to quote a line from my novel, 100 Days of Sunlight:

My hands feel the edge of the dresser, the smooth surface of the wood, then come in contact with the mirror. I let my fingertips trace the glass—up, up, up, until I’m touching the spot where my face would be, if I could see.

If I could see.

There’s a vise in my middle, squeezing tighter and tighter, like a corset. Anger and regret and fear, that cocktail of chaotic emotions—it consumes me, burns me, blisters me. I want to cry; I want to see; I want to be normal again.
 
In this scene, my protagonist Tessa is having a breakdown and is very upset about suddenly losing her sight in a car accident. I wanted to showcase her emotions, and how it feels to be falling apart inside. But let’s take this excerpt and weaken it – take all the showing out and use “telling” instead:

My hands feel the edge of the dresser, the smooth surface of the wood, then come in contact with the mirror. I let my fingertips trace the glass—up, up, up, until I’m touching the spot where my face would be, if I could see.

If I could see.

I feel like I can’t breathe. I’m angry, I’m scared. I regret so many things. I feel like I’m being consumed, burned, blistered. I want to cry; I want to see; I want to be normal again.
 
Ugh. It sounds pretty awful to me. In the first excerpt, I tried to capture the feeling of Tessa’s breakdown – “collapsing inwards” as she calls it later in the chapter. I wanted to write how it felt, in hopes that the reader would feel Tessa’s pain.

“But Abbie, isn’t ‘I want’ considered ‘telling’?” Perhaps some writers do consider this telling. But “I want” is an exception I make because although desires are very close to us personally, we can usually identify them clearly and think about them specifically. If the character doesn’t think about what they want, it leaves the audience guessing what it is they want – and wondering if they want anything at all.

TELLING INTERNAL CONFLICT
There’s another side to this whole “showing vs telling” thing: internal conflict. If you follow my YouTube channel, you hear me talk about internal conflict a lot. Basically, it can be summed up in 3 words: desire, fear, and misbelief. (What your character wants, the fear that’s stopping them from going after it, and the misbelief that created this fear - usually childhood trauma).

The tricky thing about internal conflict is that everybody has it, but most people don’t know what it is. So you can’t let your character understand their own internal conflict, look at it objectively, and tell the reader about it. This sounds detached and like you’re seeing the whole “skeleton” of the story (as I like to call it).

What does telling internal conflict look like? Example: let’s say you have a protagonist who believes that money and fame equal success and happiness. He’s afraid of failure and being a “nobody”, as he believes himself to be. This misbelief sparked in his childhood, when he was bullied in school and looked down upon by everyone who told him he wasn’t good enough. Pretty basic internal conflict, right? But how do we show the reader what this character is struggling with?

Well, here’s an example of how NOT to do it:
 
Rob didn’t know why, but he always thought that if he could just be rich and famous, he would be happy. Maybe it was because he was bullied in school and everyone always seemed to be looking down their noses at him, saying “you’re not good enough.” He was so afraid that he wouldn’t be good enough. He’s still afraid of that.

This is fine to put in your character notes and outlines, but if something this obvious and tell-y sneaks into your actual novel manuscript, DELETE IT. This not only sounds bland and detached, but it makes your character sound objectively aware of their own faults and struggles – things that nobody is aware of in themselves.

Now, you might be thinking that dialogue is a good way to sneak in your character’s internal conflict – NOPE. Most of the time, dialogue that involves a character revealing their own internal conflict comes across sounding just as cut-and-dry as the example above. Let’s try it:
 
“Why are you like this?” Susan snapped at Rob.

“Like what?”

Susan sighed. “Always working, always trying to get people’s attention and praise. I don’t understand it.”

Rob shrugged and shook his head. “I think it’s because people have always treated me like I’m not good enough, and that makes me feel inferior. I just want to be rich and famous so that I feel accomplished. I’m afraid of feeling like a failure.”

Susan rolled her eyes.

Like Susan, I’m rolling my eyes at this exchange. It sounds terrible! Nobody is able to matter-of-factly identify their deeply rooted emotional struggles like this. It totally defeats the purpose of giving your character a misbelief. Because until their “aha moment” at the end of the story, they shouldn’t know that their misbelief is false.

SHOWING INTERNAL CONFLICT
So how do you do this the right way, you might be wondering? Well, my personal favorite way to show internal conflict is to use backstory. That’s right: you need to write the actual scene when your character’s misbelief first took root. Write it as if it’s the most important part of your novel – because it kind of is. And it might make its way into your actual novel manuscript.

Flashbacks are some of my favorite things to read and see in movies, because it gives you exclusive insight into a character’s past and allows YOU to connect the dots and feel like you’ve just solved the mystery to this character’s struggle.

Whether you jump into a full flashback scene or you just give the reader little glimpses of a traumatic event that happened in this character’s past, this is the most powerful way for the reader to infer your character’s internal conflict without being told what it is.


Rob’s eyes stung from staring at the computer screen for so many hours. He sighed, removed his glasses, and shut his eyes for a moment – savoring the short respite. But whenever he stopped working, even for a moment, a wave of guilt would crash over him.

I have to work harder, he reminded himself, I have to get this promotion.

He repeated these words to himself often, but only to block out the other voices that echoed through his mind. Voices from so many years ago, voices he wished he could forget.

You’ll never be good enough, Rob. No matter how much you work, no matter how hard you try... you’ll never be one of us.
 
 
Much more powerful! If this was a real story of mine, I would definitely spend more time revising and editing that little excerpt, but you get the general idea. Showing Rob’s emotions (desire, fear, guilt, motivation, self-doubt) brings us inside the character’s skin, feeling what he’s feeling.

Let’s talk.

Let’s talk about showing vs telling! How do you show your character’s internal conflict? Do you prefer full-scene flashbacks or just “glimpses” sprinkled in? Share your writerly secrets in the comments below!
 
I want to give a big thank you to Hannah for letting me come on her blog today and talk a bit about writing! 
 
Rock on,
Abbie

Thank you so much, Abbie! I hope you enjoyed this blog post! If you're interested in Abbie's content you can check her out via these links!:

Buy 100 Days of Sunlight
Add 100 Days of Sunlight on Goodreads
YouTube
Author website
Blog
Instagram
Facebook

That's all for now!

Stay awesome,
Hannah x 

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Hi, I'm Hannah. This is my blog.

Adventuring into fictional universes is always something that I have thoroughly enjoyed. Now, as an aspiring author, I get to create them too.

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