There’s a critical problem dooming your book and you may not even realize!
At BubbleCow, we’ve edited more than 800 books. That’s a lot of books! One thing that this unique level of editing allows is for us to see beyond the problems with any single book and look at the wider picture.
That’s how we know that many writers face a problem that they don’t even understand exists.
The problem is… Emotion!
To be more precise, the problem is making your readers feel REAL emotion.
We are not talking about readers feeling emotion for a character, along the lines of ‘Oh, how sad that they died’, but your words and story triggering a true emotion in a reader.
I know this all sounds wishy washy, but stick with me.
I am sure you’ve read a book that made you cry! Think about it. I am betting that if a book has made you cry that you can still remember that book to this day. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you can still recall the exact moment you were reading that book, as tears rolled down your cheeks.
That’s the writer triggering true emotion. That’s the writer delving into your heart and ripping out feelings that leave you emotionally altered…. Now that’s writing!
If you are writing from a third person perspective (that is when the narrator is separate from the story and not one of the characters in your book, that’s first person), then you probably face a problem that you’ve never considered.
Writers become so consumed by TELLING the story, that they forget that the reader is actually part of the process. The reader is part of the story. They are not a passive observer; they are an active component in the process. The moment your reader becomes passive, they turn off, get bored and, eventually, stop reading.
If you TELL a reader that a character is sad, all you do is add a twist to the plot. What you don’t do is make the reader feel the sadness of your character.
This is important. There’s a world of difference between a reader knowing the character is sad and FEELING the character’s sadness.
What you must do, if you are to trigger emotion in a reader, is SHOW them how the character is reacting and then let the reader fill in the gaps.
If… you write with emotional honesty and with a universal truth, the character’s actions will trigger an emotion in the reader. On feeling this emotion, the reader is immediately engaged with your work on a new level.
In other words, by SHOWING not TELLING you are creating a narrative space between the reader and the characters. Because you are not telling the reader how to think and feel this leaves a narrative gap. The reader then leans into this gap and fills it with their own emotion.
Ok… These are big words, but let me show you an example.
Let’s imagine a scene where a young boy has just opened a birthday present to find a book he has been asking for all year.
Here’s the scene written with TELL:
John lifted the present from the table. His heart was filled with joy. He was happy to see the brightly colored wrapping paper. He pushed his finger into the paper and ripped a tiny hole. He was excited. He peeked inside, his heart racing with anticipation. Unable to control himself he ripped open the paper to find the book he had been dreaming of reading.
OK, not Shakespeare but you get my drift.
Now let’s look a little closer at what I’ve written. In the second sentence, we TELL the reader that John’s heart was ‘filled with joy’. In the next sentence, we TELL the reader he was ‘happy’. In the fifth sentence, we TELL the reader he was ‘excited’ and in the next, that his ‘heart was racing’.
This is a lot of TELL and leaves no space between John and the reader. In this section we are being told by the writer how John is feeling. We are not allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Now… here’s the same scene with all the TELL removed and replaced by SHOW:
John lifted the present from the table. It was a small package wrapped in red and blue wrapping paper, the colors creating a smooth swirl under his fingers. A smile crept onto his lips as he brushed the paper. He glanced from the present to his mother, his grin spreading to a smile. He held the present at arms length for a moment, his hand shaking. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, small breaths pushing from his lips.
The boy returned his gaze to the present. He removed his left hand and extended his middle finger into a poke. His head moved forward, his expression now one of concentration. His finger pushed at the paper, ripping a tiny hole. He leaned in even further, peering into the darkness.
A slight squeal slipped from his lips, an explosion of a smile on his face. Holding the present with his right hand, he ripped at the paper with his left. Long strips came away and were discarded to the floor. A small brown book sat in his right hand. John brushed the cover with the tips of the fingers on his left hand. He stood motionless for a moment, his eyes glistening with moisture. He looked at his mother and mouthed the words ‘thank you’.
The first thing to notice is that the scene is longer. The reason is that the moment we can no longer short cut by simply TELLING the reader what is happening, we are forced to add in description. This is what I call ‘crafting’. I have tried to conjure an image in your mind. If I am not going to write ‘John opened the present’, then I need to accept that I need more words.
The second thing of note is that I’ve tried to write with an emotional truth. I’ve tried to remember what it felt like to receive a present as a child. I’ve also plumbed my own memories of my own children receiving presents. The result, I hope, is a scene that has a universal truth. If I have managed to access this truth, this scene should trigger an emotion in the reader.
Finally, I’ve created a space between John and the reader. I’ve not TOLD you how John is feeling, I’ve just described his actions. It is left to the reader to interpret these actions. This is where I hope to trigger the emotion in the reader. As the reader fills the gap they are forced to tap into their own feelings of the joy of receiving a present. If I’ve managed it, then this suddenly turns into a powerful scene.
And that’s Show, Don’t Tell in action.
I feel strongly that this single technique can turn the most pedestrian of books into an engaging work that readers will remember. No, let’s scrub that. I know that this is true. I’ve seen it happen time and again. In fact, I’ve based our whole business on it! At BubbleCow, Show, Don’t Tell, is the backbone of the editorial approach we take to books written in third person. In fact, we feel it is so important, that we have created a free book to help teach writers how to use this technique in their own writing.
Let’s finish with a little writing trick that can work wonders. It’s called the ‘camera technique’. When writing a scene, imagine you are observing the scene through a camera. Now, just write what the cameraman can see. No thoughts, no short cuts, just the action. The result will be a scene packed full of SHOW and devoid of TELL.
Gary Smailes is the owner of BubbleCow, a company that helps self-publishing writers to produce publishable books. They provide book editing and proofreading.