Sunday 15 September 2019

Writers’ Questions: What’s the deal with Showing vs. Telling?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here).

In this series, titled Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing and publication process to help other writers. Last time, the passive voice was written about by me (not zombies!). In this week’s post, I’m exploring one of the most common pieces of creative writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
You wanted to become a writer because you like to tell stories. But now someone is telling you that telling is bad, and you should be ‘showing’ instead. What’s up with that? And what does showing vs. telling even mean?

Simply put, writers are advised to show, rather than tell, when a) they’re narrating something that readers should be able to work out for themselves; or, b) they’re summarising, rather than immersing the reader in the story. Let’s look at some of the most common places where writers tell, when showing would be better:

Telling emotions
Search your work-in-progress novel for emotion words e.g. angry, happy, exhausted, sad. Then consider whether there are ways you can show characters’ emotions, vs. telling readers how they’re feeling. Often you’ll find that body language cues can replace the telling of emotions and bring more action to your story.

If John is banging his fists on the table and turning red in the face, readers will probably conclude that he’s angry. If Susan is tired make her yawn. If she’s sad, maybe she’s hanging her head and sniffing back tears.

You may run into a problem where you keep repeating the same body language and/or actions. Maybe your characters are constantly shrugging, slamming doors, or crossing their arms. This is a great opportunity to hone your writerly powers of observation. What are the different ways the people you know in real life respond when they’re angry, for example? Not everyone is the door slamming type!

Telling relationships
Relatedly, writers can also fall into a trap of telling readers the state of relationships between characters e.g. 'Priya had a crush on Kevin', or 'Michael and Jayden had been best friends for five years'.

Often this is totally unnecessary. You can show Michael and Jayden’s friendship through how they speak to each other and the length of their relationship through references, in dialogue or narration, to their shared past. Humans act very differently with each other depending on their level of intimacy so bring some of these nuances to how your characters communicate in your story.

There are lots of great ways to show that Priya has a crush on Kevin too, many of which will give you the opportunity to develop your characters a lot more. Consider something like this:

Oh God, there was Kevin, looking beautiful, as usual, with his winning smile and perfectly messy hair. And Priya was just messy messy, dressed as a hot dog and covered in real ketchup. Maybe he wouldn’t see her. Maybe she could make a run for it. “Priya!” Kevin called from across the room. 

Telling people about your world
Lots of writers spend months, or even years, building the worlds where their novels are set. Maybe you’re writing fantasy and have dreamed up a complicated magic system. Maybe your sci-fi novel is set on a different planet in a different galaxy. Or maybe, like me, you write historical fiction and need to transport your readers to a different time and place.

In each of these cases, it’s very easy for telling to creep in. Are you opening with a prologue describing how your world was created? Are characters telling each other things both of them should be aware of (watch out for the tell-tale words ‘as you know’)? Are you writing paragraphs and paragraphs explaining the workings of philosophy, physics, and politics?

If so, consider how you can introduce features of your world more naturally by showing vs. telling. Want readers to understand a plumbing system? Maybe your characters get stuck in the sewers. Want readers to be aware that two tribes of people hate each other? Use dialogue to reveal their prejudices. No need to say ‘back then people travelled by horse and carriage’ or ‘in the Land of the Fairies, only wizards use wands’. Just have your characters travel by horse and carriage or a character say ‘he must be a wizard!’ when someone uses a wand.

However, despite the popularity of the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim, there are times when telling is a valid, even preferable, choice over showing. Here are some examples:

Telling in dialogue
People tell each other things all the time when they speak so it’s natural for your characters to do the same. For example, while above I recommended you avoid telling emotions, it can be very powerful for characters to confide their feelings to each other and discuss their emotional responses to what’s going on. Dialogue is also a great way for characters to learn necessary information they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Why do you think Harry Potter and friends are constantly eavesdropping under the cover of the invisibility cloak?

Telling to jump through time
Telling vs. showing is a problem when you’re writing a scene but between scenes it is sometimes necessary to tell, especially if you’re skipping a large chunk of time. Consider a sentence like ‘for the next few weeks it was business as usual’. Telling here helps you avoid the ‘boring bits’, bridges the gaps between interesting events and delivers key information to readers.

The premise of many novels, especially those written in first person or omniscient third, is that readers are being told a story. Maybe a teenage girl is telling us about the time she ran away from home, or an all-seeing godlike narrator is drawing a moral from an epic adventure.

In these cases, especially at the beginning and end of scenes, chapters and the novel itself, there will be sentences that tell, rather than show. The quintessential storytelling opening, ‘once upon a time…’ for example, is of this type. Most first person novels establish why a story is being told in the opening lines and we expect this telling voice to guide us similarly throughout.

Consider, for example, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

Ultimately, we all write to tell stories and telling and showing are two of the techniques in our toolkits to do just that. The advice ‘show, don’t tell’, shouldn’t make you eschew telling entirely, but if you’re getting this feedback a lot, especially around relationships, emotions and world building, consider taking it to heart and telling your story via showing instead.

What topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover in the next instalment of Writers’ Questions? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 8 September 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez (2010)

Content warning: sexual assault; abortion

Reading novels about slavery in the nineteenth-century American South can be a gruelling experience, but Dolen Perkins-Valdez hits all the right notes in her 2010 Wench—the story of four enslaved black women who accompany their Southern masters to an Ohio vacation resort in the 1850s.

Lizzie, our protagonist, feels she loves her master, Drayle. He’s the father of her two children and he’s taught her to read and write, as well as giving her a better quality of life than that of the field slaves. But it seems unlikely that he’ll free her, or his children, and Lizzie is struggling with her own desire for independence and autonomy.

The other three women have their own battles to contend with. Mawu wants her master dead. Sweet’s pregnant—again. And Reenie’s master (who’s also her half-brother) is ‘sharing’ her with the owner of the Tawawa House resort.

With whispers of the abolition movement reaching the women, and salvation tantalisingly close in free Ohio, all four must decide whether and how to take control of their lives and what they’d risk or give up to taste freedom.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Perkins-Valdez does a wonderful job of teasing out the nuanced reactions to slavery from all her characters—free and enslaved, white and black. Drayle’s wife Fran is a particularly complex supporting character, reminding me of Valerie Martin’s 2003 Property, which I reviewed previously. But the four women described as their masters’ ‘wenches’ are the focus, with Lizzie’s personal emotional arc at the heart of the novel.

Some moments are difficult to read. There are descriptions of multiple sexual assaults, including one instance of rape while a character is still bleeding from terminating a pregnancy. And, while the physical violence isn’t as constant as in some depictions of slavery based largely on plantations (e.g. Twelve Years a Slave), there are several scenes of corporal punishment that aren’t for the faint-hearted.

The relationships between the women—tender and multi-faceted—though are what kept me reading (at speed). They’re believable and oh so human, even providing moments of levity and joy in this unflinching depiction of a dark and dangerous time.

What novel would you like to see the Secret Victorianist review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

Sunday 1 September 2019

Neo-Victorian Voices: A Lady of Good Family, Jeanne Mackin (2015)

There are many historical novels that focus on artists—painters, musicians, sculptors. Jeanne Mackin’s A Lady of Good Family (2015) is the first I’ve read about a landscape gardener.

The novel tells the story of the real-life Beatrix Jones Farrand, an American pioneer in the field, who defied the conventions of Gilded Age New York to pursue her own career. It’s 1895 and a 23-year-old Beatrix is in Rome, taking inspiration from Old World gardens, when she meets impoverished Italian gentleman, Amerigo Massimo. Their relationship, set against the backdrop of a changing world for women and shifting European/American power dynamics, forms the heart of the story.

Reading A Lady of Good Family in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn last week
Mackin makes the (initially surprising) choice of framing the novel with a narrative set in 1920 Massachusetts and of employing a Nick Carraway-style narrator. Daisy Winters (a fictional character, said here to be the inspiration behind Henry James’s eponymous Daisy Miller) is an unobtrusive presence at first, but we get to know her even more deeply than we do Beatrix. Her troubled but loving marriage acts as a much-needed counterpoint to the novel’s other ill-fated couplings.

Mackin’s prose is wonderful, her plot is surprising and she succeeds in capturing the colours and feelings of a garden in the pages of her novel, without relying on readers having too much botanical or practical knowledge. The cover of my copy read as women’s fiction, but in some ways the novel defies categorisation—it’s romantic without being a romance, a ghost story sadder than it is scary.

Writers Henry James and Edith Wharton (the latter was Beatrix’s aunt) are members of the supporting cast, there’s a great scheming villain in the form of the nouveau riche Mrs Haskett, and Beatrix’s relationship with her mother, Minnie, is particularly well-drawn. A few lines were a little too on the nose for me about women’s changing place in society but this is a minor quibble and a matter of personal taste.

The novel left me feeling refreshed just like taking a walk in a well-designed garden. I’d highly recommend it.

Have you read A Lady of Good Family? What did you think of it? And which twenty-first century written, nineteenth-century set, novel would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist.