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The Passive Protagonist and the Blurt

Today I want to talk about the passive protagonist and blurting in dialogue. No, I’m not talking about blurbs, the juicy quotes you try and get as a soon-to-be author that (may or may not) help sell your book. Though I probably should at some point, because it’s a pretty hot topic in the publishing world and a huge source of anxiety for new authors. This post is actually about the action of blurting in dialogue. No, I haven’t run out of things to talk about. I have about 100 ideas in the “soapbox file” on my computer. (Lucky you!) I know this sounds very specific, but, as usual, I have a larger point to make by delving into something small.

passive protagonist, blurting in dialogue
Blurting in dialogue may be a sign that you’ve written a passive protagonist.

The Appeal of Blurting in Dialogue

You know those times when you open your mouth and…the worst possible thing just seems to fall out, as if on its own. I know I’ve had this happen. A few times. Usually during fights with my mother. And I hear about it for the rest of my natural life. Ha! Well, in addition to this happening a lot to me, I’ve noticed that it happens quite a bit with fictional characters. A lot of big events in manuscripts I’ve seen seem to spin on characters blurting in dialogue. The big secret. That they love the guy. That they’re not who they say they are.

I understand the urge to throw one’s arms up and hinge an important scene on a blurt. It’s easy. Your character would never do something so silly until, she just does it! You know how that goes, Reader. Sometimes ya just run your mouth! But here lies the problem. It’s careless and unintentional and often feels like a cheat. Especially if blurting is out of character for your blurter (new word). It tells me that the writer needed certain information to emerge but didn’t know how to go about it. This technique is especially disappointing when the character has, elsewhere, been in control of themselves with interiority and being present and vulnerable with the reader. A blurt under those circumstances just feels wrong and a little too convenient.

Curb the Blurt with Interiority

So how do you get around the blurt cliché? If you think I’m going to say, “interiority,” you would be correct! You’re writing compelling MG and YA fiction with great access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions, yes? Great. Since you have spent time making your character mindful and aware, they must know that what they’re blurting will have ramifications. They will know the risks of confessing their love to their crush. They will know what awful things might happen if they let their true identity slip. They will think about it. And instead of blurting it once their author has painted himself in a corner, which is what a passive protagonist would do, they will make the choice to say it with intention.

Make the moment of your blurt a conscious turning point! Get in their heads when you feel tempted to blurt and have them make the decision to say the Big Deal thing instead. Anyone can blurt anything. But we will learn so much more about your character if they take the risk and do the stupid thing with full agency. If blurting is careless, then knowing the risks and going for the reveal full-bore is ballsy. And that’s the kind of action that gets me more invested in your character.

Does your manuscript contain blurting in dialogue? Can you make it work as a choice instead and flip your passive protagonist to an active one? How will that reel your reader in or reveal a new shade of your character? If you want to dig deeper into this topic, be sure to check out my post on writing a proactive protagonist.

Are you struggling with the intersection of plot and character? Hire me as your novel editor for actionable, hands-on manuscript advice tailored to your story.

Don’t Shrug It Off: Writing Feelings

I was reading a manuscript recently for a freelancing client and noticed a lot of pretty shocking things going on…but the author didn’t seem concerned with writing feelings to accompany those things.

writing feelings, writing emotions
When you’re writing events that leave the status quo behind, you should also be writing emotions that keep pace with that shift.

An example would be a character developing a really painful physical condition and then shrugging it off. And his friends noticing that something is off and saying, “Well, I guess he’ll tell me what’s up eventually” instead of confronting their ill companion.

Missed Opportunities for Writing Feelings and Deepening Connection

The “Arm’s Length” Scenario

In our example, the first missed opportunity for writing feelings happened when the character refused to allow events to impact him. Or maybe he decided to keep up an illusion of normalcy and was therefore nonchalant. These are both realistic choices–there are certainly people like this in the world, lots of them. But are they good choices for fictional people to make?

A character who keeps everyone at arm’s length is only good if they have cracks for the reader to crawl into. The reader isn’t a character, for the sake of talking about fiction. And they’re not really a person. They are a sort of mind-meld creature that can and should get just a bit closer to the bone, especially in parts of a story that are full of fear or anger or hurt. The toughest characters in the world can have their walls, but they should also have their vulnerabilities, especially if the reader gets some access to those (via interiority, for example).

Lack of Reaction

The second missed opportunity for writing feelings is the lack of reaction to whatever is weird. If one character is doing something to disturb the status quo, the characters around him need to take notice instead of taking the path of least resistance. I know there are some worlds, like totalitarian societies in a dystopia, for example, where any kind of out-of-line behavior is frowned upon and maybe it’s a bad idea to react. Even in that case–and maybe especially in that case–characters should be tough on other characters. That means confronting them, forcing them into the vulnerable places, throwing open closet doors and letting the skeletons out. If something is weird, it needs to be weird for the POV character and those around them.

Writing emotions that match the action in your story helps the reader get context. Classic story theory dictates that a story really begins when a character’s normal gets thrown into a state of abnormal. They spend the rest of the story trying to either get back to normal or establish a new normal. So events that leave the status quo behind should be reacted to with feeling, and lots of it. Both internal and external. By everyone involved.

Don’t Take Shortcuts When Writing Emotions

This is something I’ve discussed a lot on the blog, but it never becomes less important. Writers are notorious for taking shortcuts when it comes to writing emotions. That’s why characters shrug off bumps in the night until it’s convenient for the writer’s plot to finally involve the monster. That’s why they ignore a friend’s mounting pallor until–oops!–they’re found in the cemetery at midnight, feeding on a fresh kill. If your protagonist and the other characters in your world have such tight control over themselves and their reactions to events, there are fewer opportunities for your reader to get to know them.

My manuscript critique services will help you write authentic emotion that fits the action in your story.

Connecting Secondary Elements

You’re writing a novel and putting a lot of images, events, characters, settings, and objects into it. Grand! A lot of manuscripts don’t take the necessary step after this, however, and connect the dots. If you introduce a character early on, they should work their way deeper and deeper into the fabric of your plot. Images should reappear and gain significance each time. A bird in chapter one will ideally have new shades of meaning halfway through the book, and then even more in the final chapter. Settings should change as the plot unfolds, meaning that the quarry your protagonist runs away to on a carefree summer day might change drastically when she takes a boyfriend there at night. Not only might your character experience these images, events, places, and people, you should keep in mind how your protagonist reacts to them.

Imagine a photograph of two people you’ve never seen before, young girls playing table tennis. To a random stranger, this elicits little or no reaction. But imagine if you were the girls’ mother, looking at the photograph? Or one of the girls, but maybe thirty years down the line? That object has now become imbued with some very personal emotions. Give the important secondary elements of your manuscript significance by building a relationship between them and your main character. These relationships can change and evolve over time.

Mimic the human brain and don’t let your characters think linearly. This means that you shouldn’t just bring an important secondary element to the page when it’s convenient or right when it’s needed. In between encounters with that bird that keeps reappearing or a character who is crucial to the plot, let your main character remember them or wonder about them. That’s too convenient, and it plays on the surface. Free yourself from only referencing one of your carefully chosen story points when it’s needed and let them form a richer tapestry using your character’s inner life.

The Power of Character Actions and Reactions

Character actions are a vital part of building your story. But there’s one tool available to writers that I find is often underused: character reaction. This is a missed opportunity to build strong characters. Even if you’re in third person but especially if you’re in first person, you need to highlight big moments in your story and call attention to emotion and character relationship by making sure each noteworthy exchange or event lands with your character.

character actions, strong characters
Building strong characters: If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or action.

Let Character Actions and Reactions Guide Your Reader

Character actions and reactions give your reader valuable clues as to how they should be reacting, what they should be learning from whatever just transpired, and how significant it is to the overall story.

For example, a character is staring out the window at night when, suddenly, she sees a firefly turn into a fairy princess out on the lawn. What is her reaction? If she thinks “Oh, no! Not again! That means dad will make me go out there first thing tomorrow and wash the fairy dust off the grass…” then that tells the reader that fairies are common in this world, and a bit of a nuisance. Not only do we get the character’s attitude about the firefly fairy, but we get valuable worldbuilding information (especially if this is the first time we see that this world has magic/fantasy elements to it). If she thinks “WHAT THE F*** IS THAT?!?!?!?!?!” and runs screaming from the room, we may take that as our cue that firefly fairies are not the norm and that something truly odd is going on.

Use Character Actions and Reactions to Provide Additional Information About Your MC

This is an example of how character actions and reactions could fill in larger world context. It also gives us information about character. (Does she like magic? Is she over it? Etc.) You could also define relationship through reaction. If a girl we’ve never met comes up to a boy in the cafeteria and says “Hey,” and he says “Hey,” back, then that’s a rather bland scene. However, you could fill in a lot with reaction.

Two possible scenarios:

“Hey,” she said.
How could she be talking to him so casually after what she’d done. Now she was staring at him. Great. He couldn’t be the one to make this awkward. He bit down the string of obscenities that she deserved hurled at her and mustered up a rather bland, “Hey.”

“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, and immediately regretted the wasted opportunity. This was Cassie Price, of all people! Talking to him! The moment he had been waiting for his entire life and it was over just like that. Now Cassie had moved on, taking that musky scent of her jasmine perfume with her, and he didn’t know whether he’d ever have this chance again.

Same dialogue, two completely different scenes and relationships. But notice how the detailed reaction gives us a strong sense of character in each scenario. And yes, for those of you wondering, I consider reaction to be a very important–if not the most important–function of Interiority.

Use Character Actions and Reactions to Draw Attention to Things That Matter

Use it to make things seem important, too. If something is a BIG DEAL, make the corresponding reaction big, whether through dialogue, Interiority, or character action. Draw attention to the things that matter by letting them matter more to your character. I bet there are a lot of such missed opportunities in your work to strengthen character through reaction.

Is there a disconnect between action, character, and reaction in your novel? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can lean in to the emotional potential of your writing together.

Character Feelings and Writing Emotional Scenes

I’ve done a lot of emotion-centered posts about character feelings and writing emotional scenes, and that’s because I am coming around, more and more, to the idea that the reader’s feelings are paramount in writing good fiction. One of the cornerstones of my teaching philosophy is, after all, interiority, which is the practice of getting deeply into character feelings.

character feelings, writing emotional scenes
Writing emotional scenes that exploit your character feelings will also hook the reader. Don’t be afraid to get moody!

Writing Emotional Scenes is Reader Crack

If you can’t make the reader feel (this comes in large part from first being able to deeply feel your own story), then you are sunk. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t novels, per se, they are 400 solid pages of character feelings (longing, in the same of Twilight, desire/curiosity/revulsion in the case of Shades). For me, both of them sunk their hooks into me (and about 40 million other people) so deep that I would constantly look up from the books, thinking, “This is such crap … and I can’t stop reading it!” Why? Character feelings. Emotional scenes. They are all that matter.

This brings me to today’s point: You are the curator of your reader’s feelings via character feelings and writing emotional scenes. How do you cue your reader’s emotions? With your characters’. Via their Interiority (thoughts, reactions), you lead your reader’s own thoughts, reactions, and feelings along the path of story that you’ve constructed.

A big pet peeve–and what inspired this post–is a character saying “I didn’t know how to feel right then” (or the equivalent). This is a cop-out. You need to be writing active character reaction. Guide the reader. Sure, “not knowing how to feel” or “feeling lost” is a valid emotion, but it’s a missed opportunity if you lean on it too hard. Instead, conjure up two or three really specific feelings that, when mixed together, convey a sense of being lost without ever dropping the emotional ball for your reader. Always be guiding them, and always keep in mind the emotions you are creating from moment to moment and, and writing emotional scenes, scene to scene.

Does this make you feel like a puppet master with character feelings and reader emotions? Good! That’s called “writing.”

Is your manuscript falling flat? Work with me as your developmental editor and we can get the most “emotional juice” out of your project.

Describing Emotions in Writing

Telling when it comes to describing emotions in writing is probably one of the biggest problems I encounter in manuscripts. As a writer, you need to include emotional writing at every turn, but always through Interiority and showing.

describing emotions in writing, character emotion
Describing emotions in writing: Protagonists have to be emotional beings.

Without being clued in to their Interiority–thoughts, feelings, reactions to what’s going on in the world–and without getting a sense for character emotion through voice and the way that they describe everything and everyone in your story (this applies to third person, too), we won’t truly know them.

Dig for the Nuance

But even when you’re proficient at describing emotions in writing, don’t be content to play on the surface. In a good book, there should never be just “happy” or “sad.” All emotions have causes, degrees, and consequences. The more complex the emotion in every situation, the more specific you’re being, and the more engaged your reader will become.

For example, prom is something a lot of teens look forward to. But “happy and excited” can also be cliché and boring. Not to mention unrealistic. A much more authentic character emotion might be that prom is actually bittersweet. Sure, it’s the event of the year, but it’s also a rite of passage for graduating seniors. It’s a signal that the year is almost over and that this is one of the last times all these friends and enemies and peers and teammates will be under the same roof ever again. For every emotion, find its shadow or highlight, search for a deeper layer, and give your reader several facets.

Describing Emotions in Writing Via Interiority

You can easily do it in Interiority. If we run with our prom idea, planting seeds of melancholy can be accomplished quickly and efficiently like this:

“Cheese!” Lacey grinned at the camera, clutching her date. As the flash went off, she felt a pang of nostalgia sharp enough to make her draw a quick breath. This will all be over so soon, she thought. But then the thumping bass beckoned her from the hotel ballroom, and she marched off toward it, ready to be lost in a crowd of her friends.

Ideally, we’ll get the primary emotion–excitement–and then hints of something else. No matter how you accomplish it, this kind of layered narrative is always infinitely more interesting to me as a reader, and it makes for much richer character emotion.

Is your manuscript hitting the right emotional notes? Hire me as your developmental editor and get an expert second pair of eyes on your emotional writing.

Internal Conflict Isn’t Action

Let me tell you a little story about how I fly and the internal conflict that ensues. If y’all have spent any time following my blog or Twitter, you know that I seem to wind up on airplanes a lot. Last year, I logged 75,000 miles, with my longest flight lasting 12 hours. It may come as a surprise to you, then, that I am not a good flyer. In fact, I’ve resorted to many possible solutions for my flight anxiety, from hypnotherapy to whiskey. (Both happen to work, but the latter makes for a rather groggy arrival, just FYI.) But here’s the thing. Even though flying ramps up my anxiety, it’s boring to an outside observer because there’s no external conflict.

internal conflict, external conflict
This person could be screaming her brains out on the inside, but to an outside observer she’s still just passive and static.

Worrying is Passive

These days, the only real problem I have with flying is takeoff. Landing is fine, being in the air is fine, but takeoff always gets me. (In the air, you don’t really realize you’re going 500 mph because you don’t have the ground as a reference point. On takeoff, you can see exactly how fast you’re going and you can feel yourself pulling against gravity, and I think that’s what bothers me. It’s a physical reminder of the forces involved and I don’t like to think about it.) Turbulence used to really bother me until someone I sat next to once said, “Imagine a stick bobbing in a river. It’s not comfortable, but it’s safe because it’s behind held up by water. Water has mass, and so does air. We’re floating on top of a choppy current, but we’re being held up by the air in much the same way.” That really helped.

Until I got my head straight re: turbulence, though, I would sit in my seat, pinned down with my own internal conflict, operating under the mistaken notion that my constant vigilance was the only thing keeping the plane in the air. I wanted to note every noise, feel every g-force, monitor every bank, and otherwise white-knuckle it until landing. Flying is completely out of a passenger’s control, and through the sheer force of my anxiety, I flew for years in a state of hyper-vigilance, hoping to regain some of that lost agency.

Worrying Is Okay to Write, But…

If I were to give you my Interiority on a plane–my thoughts, feelings, emotions–there would be a lot going on. Every second would be consumed with my brain’s whirrings. Worry is a very familiar, specific, and active thought process. (And here I arrive at how all this applies to writing…) There are lots of novels where I read characters worrying, and it’s a very natural emotion that helps raise stakes and build tension in story. In fact, I think that a lot of characters don’t worry enough, and a lot of writers miss great opportunities by not sharing their protagonist’s anxieties with the reader.

But there’s also a danger in writing a character who is constantly worrying. Think back to me in my window seat, monitoring every aspect of the flight and gripping my armrests. Internally, I am a hive of activity. But, to the observer in the seat next to me, I look like I’m…just sitting there. There’s no external conflict. Worry is great in doses, but you can’t build a plot on internal conflict. Because it’s static. I happen to find my thoughts as I fly fascinating. But Mary Flying would make a terrible movie because it is physically passive and static.

Balance Internal Conflict With External Conflict

So use internal conflict to amp up tension and raise stakes and definitely include it as Interiority. But remember that you need to balance it well with external conflict, or you risk your character…just sitting there. At one point, they have to cross the thought/action barrier and do something about all of their anxieties. They need to be proactive and to make something happen in the world of your book. We learn a lot about character through Interiority, but I’d argue that we learn more as they actually get out of their heads and take action. (There’s also the juicy tension of them thinking one thing and doing another, for example. But, again, you can only get there once you put them in motion.) As for me? You’ll often find me 30,000 feet above your heads, but these days, I’m more often than not (thankfully) asleep.

Hire my editing services and I’ll help you balance the internal and external conflict in your story.

Writing Young Adult Present Tense

Wondering about writing young adult present tense? This post is actually more question than answer, because Lynne did such a great job of summing up the issue and, to be fair, answered most of this question herself. But I wanted to post that process and contribute to it! What’s the issue? Present tense.

young adult present tense, writing present tense, children's book present tense, present tense writing
Present tense lends immediacy to your YA manuscript, letting the reader feel like everything is happening now now now. But is this desirable?

For my WD seminar, every writer got to ask me a question and I was guaranteed to answer it. Roughly a tenth of all the questions were about tense or POV. Someone even asked about the tense that should be used in a query letter. What?! I’d never thought about that for a second in my life. I have written about POV a few times before, like in this post about POV in writing. Tense? Not as much. So here we go.

Young Adult Present Tense Is So Hot Right Now

I’ll start with Lynne’s question about young adult present tense:

Lately when I’ve perused the YA section at Barnes & Noble, there seem to be awful lot of new releases written in the present tense. Several have been fabulous and very successful (e.g., Suzanne Collin’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy, Ally Condie’s MATCHED). Others are less well-known, but ten minutes in the YA section and you’ll have an armful. There’s been some buzz about the “trend” of present tense writing. Some authors don’t like the use of present tense and suggest its a fad (see Phillip Pullman’s take in The Guardian).

Others question whether it’s a trend at all, and conclude that in the end, it doesn’t matter because if the writing (in any tense, present included) doesn’t work for you, you can always just put the novel down. (see Laura Miller’s article in Salon). Another article or blog I read recently mentioned the appeal of present tense to young readers is its immediacy; that current teens are so used to a culture where everything happens at breakneck speed that younger readers today aren’t jarred by the use of present tense and may even gravitate toward it.

My question is two-fold: First, do you feel there a trend toward present tense writing (especially in a first person POV) in YA lit right now? Are you seeing more of it in your slush these days? And second, if so, what do you think about it? Do manuscripts written in the present tense intrigue you? Turn you off? Or are you neutral, and just wait to see if the writing lives up to the challenge? And are editors seeking books in present tense or are they wary of them?

In the end, I would think it all comes down to the story and more than anything, the quality of the writing. Present tense presents different challenges than past tense, and the immediately of the tense can be exhausting for the reader. Also, the stream of consciousness filter can be tough, so can the effort not to mix tenses. It’s still not the norm– but is it a trend?

Does The Tense Fit the Book? That’s The Only Consideration

To tell you the truth, I felt lazy with my short answer to such a long question, but so it goes. I think that tense really doesn’t matter as long as the book works. There is a trend of young adult present tense out there right now, for sure. But do I gravitate toward or away from a piece because of present tense writing? No.

Also, I haven’t really heard an editor talk to me about young adult present tense in particular. We talk about story and hook and character. Sometimes POV comes into the picture, but the most I usually hear from editors about POV is a thought on really polarizing POV, like second person direct address (YOU by Charles Benoit is an example of that, and comes up often in discussions). It seems like us literary types should spend more time discussing tense but it really does fade into the background for me when I’m reading, as long as the writing, story, character, and voice are there.

Long story short: I think young adult present tense is hot (for the immediacy reasons Lynne mentions, which I also always cite), but it’s not really a consideration for me. I’ve read present tense. I’ve written in present tense. I don’t know if I’ve represented present tense yet. (See? I can’t even remember if my clients’ books are in present tense…although I do know WILDEFIRE has sections of present tense second person direct address, because Karsten Knight is crafty like that…)

Tense is very low on my list, in other words, of things I care about when I’m reading/considering. Hope that takes some of the, ahem ahem, tension out of the issue for you all!

Voice is crucial to writing YA but a lot of writers take years to find it. Bring me on your team as a developmental editor for personal, intimate manuscript feedback geared toward the young adult market.

Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in young adult fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

swear words in young adult fiction, writing young adult fiction, ya fiction, swearing in children's books
Worried about swearing in children’s books? Keep this young adult away from your manuscript, because he’s about to drop some swear words…or not…

The Considerations of Swear Words in Young Adult Fiction

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish edgy content, including swearing in children’s books. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading swear words in young adult and it makes them uncomfortable, they’ll skip that part or put the book down. The same goes for any other kind of edgy content. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

Everyone Has Their Swear Word Limits

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Superfluous Swear Words

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swear words in young adult fiction are necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too. There aren’t any hard and fast rules about swearing in children’s books.

Swear Words in Young Adult Writing Are Totally Up to You

If, though, as mentioned above, including swear words in young adult is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — like sex in young adult fiction — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

Are you hitting the right young adult voice? Hire me to be your young adult editor.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in children’s books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

What “Show Don’t Tell” Really Means

“Show Don’t Tell” is the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime.

“Show don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?

show don't tell, show don't tell examples
Adjust those glasses because I’m about to blow your mind.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Telling

The common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what “show don’t tell” means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

Let me give you some show don’t tell examples. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:

Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter. Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much. “Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake smile on his face.

“Show Don’t Tell” Examples of Showing

Now let’s try showing on for size:

Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory. Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”

Digging Deeper Into Showing and Telling

What do you notice about these show don’t tell examples? In the first one, the characters’ emotions are very obvious. Why? The narrator tells you all about them. We know Katie is hungry and we know Karl really isn’t digging the bossy way she ordered a burger. That’s fine. It works. It gets the information across, right? (In a very redundant way, mind you!)

What about in the second example–did we still get that same information? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.

Using Interiority: Thoughts, Feelings, Reactions

We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.”

We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately. This is called interiority.

How Readers Receive and Know Information

This brings me to why “show don’t tell” is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information.

Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.

This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second of the two show don’t tell examples to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl.

Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.

An Exception to the Rule

Showing v. telling with a person’s interiority in third or first person narration is one small exception to the rule. (Check out my post on interiority in writing for more on this concept.) I know some of you will ask why I still chose to tell the reader “It felt like a pit had opened up inside her” in the second of the two show don’t tell examples, too. There are some times when you can show too much. If you’re always saying “she punched the wall” or “she spat on the ground,” for example, instead of occasionally just saying what the character feels inside, it can get overwhelming. You don’t have to say “angry” outright, but you can simply tell the reader what’s going on with narration instead of action or gesture. Sometimes that’s easier and more direct.

It all depends on where you want the focus of each moment to go. And it is a balance. Play around with it. Now that you know why “show don’t tell” is so crucial in your writing, you should really, at least in the beginning, err very much on the side of showing.

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com