How to Tell a Story without Telling a Story
December 14, 2013
In today’s article we are going to discuss the how to tell a story without telling a story. I must admit that I tend to find the “show don’t tell” rule a bit ironic because all writing is telling. Yes, you read that right. It’s all telling.
Telling narrative is obvious.
With keen anticipation, Joan and Sally wait for their favorite actor to appear.
The example above is to the point. It keeps things moving. And what’s more, there’s nothing wrong with this type of storytelling—in moderation. The problem with telling narrative is that it’s easy to use, and because it’s so easy to use it becomes a crutch and a trap. Imagine, if you will, a story that is told directly. Every motion the characters make is revealed. Every sound, every thought, every feeling that is experienced is forced down the readers’ throats in glaring adjective and adverb laden detail. The reader has a front row seat to the author playing with her characters like a child plays with dolls. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Well, that’s because when a reader is told everything, they are left to imagine nothing. And a reader who is so carried through a story that they do not have to engage in any way, is a reader who will most likely fall asleep in the middle of your book.
So how do we tell without telling?
When crafting a story, sometimes what you don’t say is much more important than what you do say. Because of this, it is necessary to play a bit of literary sleight of hand—tell but in a way that doesn’t feel like telling.
One of the key ways that an author can do this is to incorporate detail that engages the reader instead of dictates to them. Did you know that only seven percent of communication is verbal? The traditional breakdown is that fifty-five percent of communication is body language and thirty-eight is tone of voice. So the first place that you can tell without telling is to incorporate nonverbal communication into your story. Don’t say that a character is upset. Describe their demeanor. Show it with their words and imply it in their tone of voice.
The human body is very expressive. We communicate with our eyes, the press of our lips, the twitch of our jaw, the set of our shoulders, the way we hold our hands, the way we shift around, etc. And what’s more, all of these things “tell” on us. You can imply a lot about a character and the way they are feeling by simply describing the way they look. Your readers should know more about your characters than the characters know about themselves—and this knowledge is something that is implied to the reader through body language.
But be careful. It’s easy to fall into a body language rut by using the same “tells” throughout the manuscript. The most heavily overused offenders are the eyes and mouth. If the only nonverbal expressions characters have are looking, glancing, glaring, laughing, chuckling, smiling, and so forth, it’s time to change things up.
The second way that you can add showing to your story is to have the characters do things that reveal information about their personality, strengths, and faults. If you have a character who is selfish, don’t tell the readers that they are selfish but instead have the character act selfishly.
The third way to add showing to your story is to mind your syntax. This covers two areas: pacing and word choice.
Your sentence structure matters. You can set the tone of a scene by carefully choosing your sentence structures and lengths. Do you want to create an anxious feel? Use short, staccato sentences and dialogue tags to keep things moving at a fast pace. Want to pull the reader deeply into a scene and up the emotional connection? Lengthen your sentences and judiciously throw in some introductory participles to create a lulling wave in your prose. Linger over your descriptions and focus on your characters’ body language.
Pacing is a way that you gently guide a reader’s impression of a scene without telling them how they should feel about what’s going on. When combined with action and dialogue, pacing can be used to create a sense of outrage, love, tension, heartbreak, etc. The possibilities are endless.
If you are having trouble finding the proper pacing for your scene, pick a piece of music that makes you feel the way you want your readers to feel, then pace your scene to it.
Now on to word choice. The easiest way to spot telling, is to look for “ly” adverbs. These tend to crop up in conjunction with dialogue tags and dead verbs.
“Why are you here?” Sally asked expectantly.
“I had to see you,” Jamie desperately replied.
She watched him warily. “What do you want from me?” she stuttered brokenheartedly.
There is a quick cure for dialogue such as this. Replace the dialogue tags with narrative that implies what the characters are feeling rather than tells it.
But what about dead verbs? Walk. Such a simple word—such a simple, lifeless word. And it tends to overwhelm manuscripts, along with the other major offender, look. Mind your verb usage. If you are having to combine to verbs with adverbs to make your meaning clear, more likely than not you have fallen into the trap of “telling.” And if the verbs you are using lack oomph, it’s time to change some of them up. And I do mean some, not all.
Remember that writing is about balance. It’s easy to tip the scales too far in one direction or another. So, while I encourage you to up the amount of showing narrative that you use, at the same time I caution you not to go overboard. Telling narrative isn’t bad, and neither are dead verbs or dialogue tags or adverbs. They’re just bad in excess. And the same could be said of showing, lively verbs, and excessive creative narrative.
All of these things have a place in your book. The trick is to use them in a balanced way so they work for you and not against you.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Shay Goodman’s novel, Reborn.