Saturday, July 15, 2017

Savvy Saturday: Brantwijn Serrah with Show vs. Tell

If you're a writer, it's a fair bet you've heard this one:

"Show, don't tell."

For many writers, this proves to be a bit of a challenging lesson. For others, it comes fairly naturally. What many don't realize, however, is that whether or not you intend to do it, you are always showing something.

For me, one of the tricks to showing vs. telling comes with dialogue. It's easier to think of body language when we think about people actually communicating. Before I describe any action or statement with an adverb -- "He said angrily" -- I consider what sort of body language will communicate anger instead:
"He said with a scowl"
"He clenched his jaw"
"He shook his fist"
And etc.

While it's easy to remember body language when characters are actively communicating, we may not always think about it when they are not. However, as we rarely have a character who does nothing but sit in a corner and stare into space, we know that characters are always doing something. We have to remember, therefore, that whatever they are doing, it shows us something.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
It's cliche, but it's true. Talk is cheap; actions often relay our true motivations and intent.

When it comes to storytelling, I'm a fan of saying "Just because you say something doesn't make it true". Quite often I see new and amateur writers in romance making this mistake: they give readers claims such as:
No one had ever made her feel this way before.
There was just something about him.
She was always such a klutz!
He'd never been good at finding the right words.

When you as the author make a claim like this, you have to back it up with action. If you tell me a character is a klutz and yet never show her stumbling or spilling a plate of food or tripping over a stair, I'm not going to believe you. If you tell me the love interest has some unnamed quality which sets him apart from everyone else and yet he never does anything to distinguish this quality, I'm going to call it lazy writing (and another cliche...don't tell me "something", tell me what!).

I've run into this problem recently with one of my lead characters, Sadira. I peppered her inner monologue with the phrase "She just couldn't find the words", or some variant thereof. The problem was that whenever Sadira got to talking, she turned out to be extremely eloquent...which made me a liar. You can't create a situation, feeling, personality, or anything else simply by stating it to be what you want it to be. If your character's actions run contrary to what you've claimed, it doesn't matter what you've said. The actions are where the real truth lies.

Actions are always there

Your characters are never "off the clock". Even in scenes where they may not be the focus or may not be present, if you describe them doing something, then guess what? They're doing something. And whatever it is they're doing, it communicates something to the readers.

A smart writer learns to use this to their advantage. Some even recognize that if their character is doing something, it could belie the character's natural inclination, and reveal something of that character's true intentions or personality. If you've got a gal sitting in the background of a shouting match between two of your leads, whatever she's doing back there shows us what she's thinking or feeling...even if we don't intend it to.

Another thing that shows a character's true nature is their habits. You don't want to give your character a habit that shows readers something you don't intend to communicate. A character biting her lip shows thoughtfulness or distraction; biting nails can show concentration or anxiety. Quirky characters ought to have a quirky habit: a non-smoker who keeps a cigarette behind his ear or a charming, witty rogue flipping a coin and catching it. If you're showing us that a character has a habit like this, you're communicating something about their personality. Be in control of this situation and be sure your characterization is consistent throughout.

You are always showing

If your characters are doing something, they are showing something. One of my pet peeves is a character who shows themselves to be manipulative and self-centered, when the author wants me to believe they are likeable and heroic.

Remember your characters are always showing us something. Be in control of what they show us, or else you allow them to tie you up in inconsistencies or confusion.

The most important thing to remember is that what your characters show us will always be more convincing and leave more of an impression than what you or they only tell us. A thoughtful writer goes a bit beyond this simple knowledge and uses showing to their advantage: remember that your characters are essentially always "onstage", even if they aren't in the spotlight, and use their actions to show us layers of your story. You don't ever have to tell you readers a character is a perfectionist if you simply show them consistently behaving like one. This is a stronger means of character development with your reader, and a surefire way to be sure you're living up to that good old rule, "show, don't tell."

About the Author

When she isn't visiting the worlds of immortals, demons, dragons and goblins, Brantwijn fills her time with artistic endeavors: sketching, painting, customizing My Little Ponies and sewing plushies for friends. She can't handle coffee unless there's enough cream and sugar to make it a milkshake, but try and sweeten her tea and she will never forgive you. She moonlights as a futon for four lazy cats, loves tabletop role-play games, and can spend hours watching Futurama, Claymore or Buffy the Vampire Slayer while she writes or draws.

In addition to her novels, Brantwijn has had several stories published in anthologies by Breathless Press, including the 2013 Crimson Anthology and 2014 Ravaged Anthology. She's also had a short story published in the Cleiss Press Big Book of Orgasm and the anthology Coming Together Through The Storm. She hopes to have several more tales to tell as time goes on. She has author pages on GoodReads and Amazon, and loves to see reader comments on her work. Her short stories occasionally pop up at Foreplay and Fangs, her blog at

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