As a career journalist, I had point of view thrashed out of me by professors, editors, and colleagues. “Unless you’re a columnist,” they’d say, “keep your point of view to yourself. Just report who, what, where, when, why, and how. Stick to the facts. Quote notable people from various sides of the issue and let the reader decide.” Right. Be objective, be ethically impartial. I silenced my point of view.
As an aspiring author, I had to rediscover the power of point of view and how to wield it in a story. Great stories embed the reader into the skin of the characters, to feel their pain, their joy, their fears, so readers can vicariously experience the story. Journalists Laura Lippman, Joan Didion, Hank Phillipi Ryan, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens became successfully published authors, so it can be done.
To regain the ability to present a point of view, I started small—publishing essays. For a few years I wrote a column in my metropolitan Mensa group’s publication. Mostly humor, but a few touched on serious topics. Writing essays helped me find my voice and explore a point of view long suppressed.
During this training period, I read classics and best-selling modern fiction analytically. Oh, the power of point of view! Energized, inspired, and eager, I hammered out draft after draft of my Great American Novel, 96,000 words in later form. Next came the giant step of sharing this precious thing with outsiders, critique partners, my spouse, a few close reader pals.
They liked it, but…they couldn’t pinpoint what it lacked. They praised the dialogue, they loved the loveable characters and despised the antagonist, the setting was fine, and the pacing was fine. But. Shrugs.
Then Author John Foxjohn, a critique partner and former Army Ranger, said that I should show not tell. He said I needed to strip away the point of view filters. Wait. The what? Huh? He explained that I was telling things from the author’s viewpoint instead of showing them from the character’s view.
Point of view filters are signaled by sensory words, such as: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard.
For example, instead of writing from the author’s point of view: He thought Is that my little girl going on a date?
Write from the character’s point of view: Is that my little girl going on a date?
Strip away the point of view filter “thought” and simply write what the character is thinking. Instead of He wondered why she said that write Why did she say that?
Let’s do an example for the sense of touch. He felt tingling pain shoot up his arm.Tingling pain shot up his arm. See the difference? Which one seems natural and organic from deep inside the character? Which version seems to keep the reader at arm’s length from the experience?
And now an example from the sense of sight, the most overused sense in fiction. He could see three feral cats charging at him.Three feral cats charged at him. Think of this as the writer’s form of method acting. Get inside the character when writing. Write from the inside out. Stop labeling the sensations and describe them with such precise details that the reader understands without the label.
Use the details that evoke the sensation instead of naming the sensation. Instead of writing He sensed someone had been in his house while he was gone, show the reader the moved chair, the book opened on the table that was closed when he left. For example: He sensed he was not expected for dinner. That’s telling. How did he sense it? What specifically triggered that suspicion? Let the reader figure it out from a description of action or details. The hostess rushed to the table with a plate, glass, napkin, and silverware while other guests shifted their chairs.
Smell is the most powerful memory trigger and a sadly underused sense in fiction. Which is more evocative of memory? He smelled freshly baked brownies. Chocolate wafted from the kitchen beckoning him.
And lastly, the sensation of hearing. When tempted to write He heard the sound of gunfire and felt glass rain down, try Popopopop. Jake ducked under a table as glass shards rained inside the diner. Compare the following sentences. Phil heard church bells clang five times. The church bell clanged five times, reverberating off brick and pavement.
Developing the habit of showing instead of telling takes practice. Watch for the labels, those sensory point of view filter words: thought, felt, saw, sensed, smelled, tasted, and heard. Hunt them down and eliminate them. Your readers will thank you for it, because they will enjoy a closer you-are-there experience in your stories.
This single change to remove point of view filters raised my fiction writing to the next level. The last great change was narrowing the story from seven points of view to three. Thank you, dear blunt critique partners for insisting that more isn’t better. Better to dive deeper into a few points of view than dance on the surface with many.
The next level will be learning how to describe the sensations of an emotion instead of labeling the emotion—well, now that’s world-class writing. I’m off to study Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions and research how the masters do this. Yeah, okay. I’m also off to read marvelously written novels. Let’s call it research.
When writing teachers, agents, and editors plead with writers to “show don’t tell,” beginning writers have no clue what this means. No writer is born with such knowledge. I had heard “show don’t tell” in workshops and conferences, and I had read it in books. It was through Author John Foxjohn’s coaching that the lesson finally embedded itself in my brain. In the spirit of watch one, do one, teach one, I pass along this hard-learned lesson to you.
In fiction writing, showing is preferred over telling, because showing allows the reader to step into the character’s life to experience the story as if first-hand. Readers enjoy vicariously living in the story, seeing the world through fresh perspectives. In the finest fiction, showing immerses the reader deeply into the character’s thoughts, feelings, attitude, and skin. This is called deep point of view.
To craft this experience for the reader involves cutting away the barriers between the reader and the character by showing the reader how it feels to be the character. ‘Telling’ words, such as words that label feelings, separate the reader from the story by reminding the reader that he is reading about something instead of experiencing it.
Let’s examine the labeling words that indicate the writer is telling instead of showing.
SHOWING OR TELLING IN POINT OF VIEW
When revealing the point of view character’s thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, beware of using these telling words. The following examples present the telling words used to label the senses and feelings of the point-of-view character.
He thought (or he wondered) who died and made her boss.
Instead write what he thought or what he wondered. The reader is already in the character’s point of view, so drop the label and show his thought.
Who died and made her boss?
He felt (or he could feel) tingling pain shoot up his arm.
Tingling pain shot up his arm.
He saw (or he could see) the car veer toward him.
The car veered toward him.
He sensed (or he could sense) the hostess was not expecting him, because she brought out a place setting and hastily added it to the table.
The hostess brought out a place setting and hastily added it to the table.
He smelled (or he could smell) the acrid stench of burning hair assault him.
The acrid stench of burning hair assaulted him.
He heard (or he could hear) church bells clanging eight times.
Church bells clanged eight times.
He tasted (or could taste) smooth chocolate melt on his tongue.
Smooth chocolate melted on his tongue.
Notice how simple and direct the showing sentences are? They feel active and alive instead of being described at a distance. You can hunt for the telling words (sensory labels) in your manuscript through the FIND or SEARCH feature of your software. Root them out!
WHEN TELLING WORKS BEST
There are times when telling works better than showing.
When dialogue REPEATS information given earlier in the story, retelling it will bore the reader. On the second encounter of characters discussing the same stuff—summarize. The reader would have skipped over it anyway. However, if the retelling offers a peculiar slant or lie about the events then play it out for the reader so the reader sees the retelling as a lie or misrepresentation. Otherwise tell it in summary.
When the content of the dialogue would BORE the reader, then summarize. For example:
Dear Mrs. Klinghoffer wedged herself into the bus seat beside sixteen-year-old Kenny and described her gall bladder surgery for the entire two-hour trip to Boston.
No matter how important it is that Mrs. Klinghoffer spoke to Kenny, who needs to relive the details of that conversation? Yes, this is telling, but the reader will thank you for not showing the entire gall bladder monologue. This also holds true for describing large bridges of time or place between events. If all that happened between one scene and another is that the hero drove to work, have mercy on the reader and summarize with something like–Later, when he arrived home….
While the differences between telling and showing appear minor, these differences either keep the reader at arm’s length from the story, or lure him into the world you have created. Make magic.
This book humanizes a lesser-known part of American history in how orphans were shipped by train from New York City to the Midwest in hopes of providing them a better life. What happens often falls short of the lofty, good intentions of the orphan train planners. After reading this story, thoughts will linger about how we measure the value of what is lost and what is kept through our lives. See life through the perspective of a rebellious 17-year-old orphan and the ninety-year-old woman with an attic of belongings to catalogue and sort through. The women discover common ground and unexpected friendship.
Higgins captures the wonderful chaos of a young woman’s love life. Faith Holland returns home to upstate New York years after being left at the altar. Her family grows wine and while Faith has been away her sisters and brother have been running things just fine. When Faith attempts to return home she faces one awkward, hilarious situation after another. This book can be read as a stand alone, but it is part of a series of marvelous funny stories about the couples in a small town.
People recognize terrible dialogue when they hear it in movies, or on television or read it in books. It comes off wooden, robotic, confusing, lecturing, boring or in some way artificial sounding. Examples abound in B-grade movies, comic books, soap operas, and probably in the last book you refused to continue reading. Don’t be that writer.
Dialogue is NOT conversation put on paper.
Imagine that instead of writing a novel, you are writing a play or a screenplay. By their nature, these are dialogue-driven works and as such, soar or sink by the quality of the spoken interaction between the characters. The most common blunder in writing dialogue comes from trying to reproduce normal conversation. I dare you to go record random conversation at the mall and then transcribe it. It is gibberish. Stammering, unfinished sentences that leave the listener hanging on a word, interruptions, rambling, redundancies, slang, misuse of language—these are the hallmarks of normal conversation.
Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.
Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.
In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.
In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.
Dreadful dialogue comes from using dialogue when narrative or exposition would work better.
When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?
Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?
Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.
Presenting flashbacks through dialogue is also tricky. Flashbacks are internal. Is the flashback worth stopping the flow of action? When presented in movies, they can begin with a voice-over along the lines of “I remember that morning twelve years ago when I first met Mr. Adams….” The best use of a flashback is when the character has reached a point of utter confusion or frustration and he has to make a decision. To make that decision, he will think about things from his past for clues and answers. Think of a flashback as a question answered by memory. For example, the character asks himself—How on earth did I end up in this situation? When the character recalls the decisions he made that led to his current state, he reaches the point of understanding, which answers his question, and the flashback is over. He can then apply this insight to the present situation.
Revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue seems artificial because thoughts and feelings are internal. Who is going to declare absolutely honest thoughts and feelings with others in a conversation? Okay, children do, but unless your character is a child, it could be ‘oversharing’. Leave that stuff for the social networking souls who post “Hi, brushed my teeth today. Sure didn’t want to go to class, but have a quiz in history class I have to take.” You might as well shoot your reader to put him out of his misery. There must be a compelling reason for a character to share personal thoughts and feelings. If such sharing is necessary for the story, keep it brief and dramatic, such as in a fight scene or in a highly dramatic moment. The exception for a character sharing his thoughts with another would be two or more people brainstorming together, or in group therapy, but even then, keep it brief.
Using dialogue to explain complex issues, history or technical information is a sure-fire way to drive the reader away. Unless you can make this dialogue an argument, don’t use dialogue. It does not sound natural to use dialogue to explain complex issues or technical information because long stretches of speech are lectures. If the reader needs to know the time, don’t tell him how to build a clock. Narrative summary works best here.
If a dialogue scene in your manuscript is there to deliver backstory, present flashback, reveal character’s thoughts and feelings or explain something, then change the scene to exposition.
Dialogue is designed to perform these functions:
Advance the plot. The inciting incident, key turning points, the climax and other important emotional moments have the greatest impact when the events unfold in front of the reader.
Build to a change in a relationship, a power shift, or a turning point in the action. Make the talk between characters matter. If the talk does not cause a change or mark a change, then why is it in the story?
Create immediacy. The reader experiences the conversation in real time, along with the characters. This allows the reader to feel part of the story by drawing her into the experience.
Reveal character. How a character expresses himself changes depending on who he is interacting with—spouse, child, boss, colleague, or adversary. Characters talk differently when under stress or in danger. A person’s character is tested when having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing.
Set the mood to create an emotional impact on the reader. It is better to make the reader cry than to make the characters cry. In dialogue, conversations can be elevated above the commonplace because the writer can craft the dialogue with imagery and precision. Characters can speak bolder, wittier and more insightfully than real people. Brief statements hold the greatest impact.
Begin or heighten conflict. It is human nature to desire to witness the action rather than hear about it second hand. If the conversation does not affect the relationship of the characters involved in it, then why is this conversation being played out for the reader? Show the fight scene.
Create suspense. The reader knows more than the characters because the reader is privy to all the conversations and actions. Stimulate the reader’s curiosity, raise questions. Characters lie and misunderstand one another in dialogue. The reader enjoys sorting out the liars from the truthful.
Move action along swiftly. When the reader goes down the page quickly, it gives the feel of fast action. Dialogue increases the pacing of any scene because things happen when characters meet face to face.
Reveal tidbits of the past. Use it like Hansel and Gretel, dropping crumbs to leave a trail. Lead the reader along.
Great dialogue does more than one of these functions at the same time. Make sure the dialogue carries its weight—that it does double or triple duty in the scene. Read your dialogue scene out loud into a recorder. When you play it back, can you hear clunky phrases? Are you gasping for breath in long sentences? Revise. Polish. Shorten.
You can craft dialogue that resonates with readers long after they put down the book. It takes effort, insight and aiming for deep character to make your dialogue memorable.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping the site so I am posting this article here to keep it available.