Show and tell

One of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers is to Show, Don’t Tell.

I’m guilty as charged – one of my most common critiques from my partners’ and friends’ work is to stop overwriting and explaining and let your images or action or dialogue do the heavy lifting. (“Trust your reader.”)

So I was pleasantly surprised by the advice given by Rachel Starr Thomson about “Fatal Flaws” on Writers Helping Writers:

Stop underwriting.

Really? Yes, really, according to Ms. Thomson. To engage your reader, you need to engage their emotions. And while dialogue and action can convey emotion, sometimes more is needed. Underwriting is what happens when vital elements that need to be on the page are missing.  Ms. Thomson claims that often folks strip so much out of their story, that it ends up “gasping for breath.”

She goes on to say that a 3D story full of emotion becomes a 2D story lacking connection and heart, when three things are eliminated:

  • Process
  • Reaction
  • Thoughts behind emotion

Process is the steps behind any decision or action. How can we as the reader be invested in the outcome if we don’t see or understand how the character reached it?

Ms. Thomson really got me when she started talking about reaction. “A character who responds to things is alive, and through that character, the story can be experienced at greater depth.” If reaction is lacking, or too subtle, the character can seem flat, unrealistic, or unsympathetic. (Guilty as charged in my current work-in-progress!)

Finally, Ms. Thomson points out that we as writers work so hard to show emotions through body language, etc., that often our readers don’t know what our characters are thinking. For example, grinding one’s teeth can result from frustration, anger, impatience – you get the picture. Each of those emotions is different, and each mean different things for our characters. If the reader misunderstands the character, they may well not connect emotionally.

As I mentioned above, I’m guilty of underwriting in my current novel – in, say, every part I’ve submitted to my critique partners. I’m going to work on finding that balance between overwriting and underwriting to find the sweet spot where my readers can connect with my story. And I might have to get Ms. Thomson’s e-book to find out those other 11 fatal flaws…



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