On Characters #2: Showing, Not Telling

18 11 2009

As I am working my way through my rough draft for NaNoWriMo (which, believe it or not, is already close to being over), I know that my next two (or three) months should be dubbed “National Novel Revising Months.”  I still have “National” in the title because the majority of writers do not write a final draft in their first shot through the material.  One of my strengths as a writer is that I already know my biggest weaknesses, so when I revise, I know what to look for: flat characters, forced dialogue (goes hand-in-hand with the flat characters), and instances where I tell instead of show.  In today’s post, I am focusing on the showing-not-telling angle while looking at characters, but the same principle can be applied to any aspect of the story: plot, setting, etc.  I will explore the dialogue and flat character issues in other posts; the “On Getting to Know My Characters” post is what I am considering to be my “On Characters #1” post and focuses on taking a new angle for using questionnaires to get to know your characters better.


In my non-writing life, I teach college students; as a member of the English department, I teach freshmen composition along with my specialty (linguistics).  When I grade compositions, I notice one problem over and over again: students tell their readers what is happening rather than showing them.  For example, I see a lot of essays where an idea is introduced but never explored in sentences like, “My dad has always been there for me.”  The student then assumes that is all that needs to be said and moves on.  In cases like this one, the writer is choosing to tell the reader about her dad’s continual support without showing examples or providing details about the support.  It is difficult for my students to get over this habit (and sometimes difficult for them to even see that they’re doing it), and I can understand why: It’s a bad habit many writers have, even writers who have been working on their craft for a long time.  I know when I go back to read through my NaNoWriMo work, I will cringe when I see how many times I summed up what could have been a really descriptive paragraph into one sentence.


In the case of developing characters, using full descriptions can be so much more telling than simply summing up what the character is feeling.  For example, let’s say I have a character who is nervous while a conversation is taking place around her.  I could just write, “She was nervous,” and move on from there.  But that would be telling my readers the character is nervous and not showing them she is nervous.  You may be asking yourself why I would want to show the details of being nervous; my answer is that by showing the details, I can better build my characters into round characters (thus touching on one of my other weaknesses).  We all have our own bad habits when we’re nervous–it is up to me to build those habits into my character.  Compare the following two excerpts and judge for yourself what sounds better:


Excerpt 1

She was so nervous that she couldn’t concentrate on the interview.


Excerpt 2

She tapped her foot.  The sharp click from the tip of her new pointy-toe heels meeting the concrete floor beat out notes with staccato precision.  She tried to focus on the words coming at her, but cotton filled her ears; she instead watched his mouth move around the words she couldn’t hear.  When he glanced down at his notes on the table in front of him, she quickly turned her wrist to see her watch.  She raised an eyebrow in surprise and flicked her eyes to the clock on the wall to her left to confirm the time.  Something is wrong, she thought as she looked at her interrogator and realized his mouth had stopped moving.  It was her turn to talk, and she had no idea what she was supposed to say.


Which one would you rather read in a story?  Excerpt 1 tells while Excerpt 2 shows.  Notice that Excerpt 2 doesn’t even contain the word “nervous” but still portrays the feeling of nervousness.  When I read through my rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, I already know I will find many instances of excerpts like Excerpt 1; my job then is to figure out how to take those excerpts and turn them into something more informative and interesting.  If you, too, share that weakness of mine, one thing you might consider is asking yourself the age-old journalistic questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?  Decide which question(s) best fit the scene you’re trying to better describe and then answer them.  In the case of the examples above, I already had the who and what, but I was missing the how.  How did her nerves affect her?  Once I answered that question, I could fill out the excerpt to make it more appealing.  If I wanted to add a bit more of a back story to the excerpt, I might explore the “why” angle.  Why is it that she was so nervous about this interview?  Had she been out of work for ages?  Was it going badly?


How would you work the “why” into Excerpt 2?  I’d love to read what you come up with; if you feel inclined, leave your version in a comment to the post so we can all share in on the fun of revisions.




2 responses

11 12 2009

Awesome affair, I did not thought it would be so amazing when I read your title with link!

12 12 2009

Why, thank you. I will work on making more fascinating titles. . .

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