Tips to Trim Telling in Writing

Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction, because they amount to telling in writing. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene. Let’s look a little closer at telling vs showing in these instances.

telling in writing, telling vs showing
Looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. In writing, use action and context clues to convey an emotion without spelling it out.

Some Things Are Better In Life Or On The Screen

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply too intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life and usually amounts to telling in writing.

Don’t Take Shortcuts

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice — which boils down to telling in writing — the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

For Example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

This is a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? When we’re thinking about telling vs showing, you want to put the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Trim Out Telling in Writing

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does — and in the telling vs showing struggle, showing wins out. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word. You flip telling in writing to showing, which will always tighten up your manuscript.

Awareness, Not Elimination

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool. For more tips on tightening up your character interactions, check out my post on expository dialogue.

Hire my editing services and I’ll help you trim out instances of telling in writing.

5 Replies to “Tips to Trim Telling in Writing”

  1. John Green does an awesome job of using dialogue tag actions to convey both character and tone and looks.

    You’re so right. It’s impossible to cut it all out, but in poignant scenes it would be even better to heighten all that tension with a different kind of emotional expression than tone and glances.

    Lovely post 🙂

  2. This was so helpful–and timely! Very recently, my writing was becoming overburdened with grumbles and glances and glares (oh my!). I couldn’t even really pinpoint what was going on or why I was doing it; all I knew was that my scenes were suddenly flat and boring. I was being lazy! I’d fallen back on shortcuts! Thank you so much!

  3. I have been puzzling over the underwhelming nature of some of these in my manuscripts lately…seeing this post tells me it’s a sign that I need to address it. Dialogue tags helped me a lot, but I do have to force myself to think beyond the obvious. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don’t.

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