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.
The Winter Haven Public Library is hosting my first EVER book signing event on Saturday, May 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The library is at 325 Avenue A NW, Winter Haven, Florida. Author pals have tried to gently warn me to set low expectations as a newbie author, an unknown. Okay, so I didn’t order THAT many books. Handsome didn’t get a hernia hauling them in after the UPS man stacked the boxes by the front door and ran.
The UPS man ran because he probably realized he was at the house where the crazy newbie author squealed and hugged him when that first box of books arrived for the reviewers. Fair warning. My enthusiasm has not abated.
One box is for the Goodreads Giveaway winners. The other two are for the signing. If the books don’t all sell at the signing, stop me for a copy. I’ll have the leftovers in my trunk. I’ve bought books from Author Frank Stunk from the back of his car. Like contraband for a reading addict. I’ll bet Author John Foxjohn always has copies of his books in his vehicle. He’s a marketing wizard and a mighty fine author of crime fiction and non-fiction.
I even bought a SQUARE. That white square thingy that reads credit cards when attached to a smart phone. It sends money to my checking account. Tested it with a dollar. Works fine. My friend, Delta Ryan, who runs a non-profit mission told me about it.
Sunday night in the church lobby, I squealed when a friend said she had ordered a book. Handsome gave me a look over the rim of his glasses then shook his head. Another friend mentioned that she was reading a copy. I don’t think I’ll EVER get tired of hearing that. I tried to walk with decorum to the car, but I was cartwheeling on the inside.
I will also be speaking with two local book clubs. And book signings in Orlando and Albuquerque. SQUEAL. I also peeked at my book’s Amazon ranking for 5-15-16 and it was ranked 11,871 out of 8,000,000 books. SQUEAL. Amen and amen.
Ahem. Okay, yeah. Time to get back to work to send the next book off for cover art and editing and formatting…to meet the October publication deadline. Back to the writing cave!
I will try to behave at my book signing. I might hug a few readers. No telling if I will be able to contain my joy. All the years of writing and editing will be worth it if readers enjoy the story.
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.
I am trying to lead by example and live with no television, read more, get out to play more, exercise more, and live more. Watching television is a habit that isolates me from the world while it simultaneously gives the illusion of being part of it. Like any habit, slouching on the sofa staring at a blinking box is easy to do. Far easier than planning a dinner party with friends, or researching the next vacation, or visiting pals in the hospital. Watching television for the most part is social, mental, and physical inertia.
Remember the movie WALL-E? He was a small trash-compacting robot who hitches a ride back to the ship where humans live while they wait for earth to recover from pollution. When he find the humans they have relied so heavily on technology to feed, bathe, and transport them that they have grown so lazy they can’t walk. That would be me in another ten years of nightly television viewing with a bowl of popcorn in my lap.
Heading into month six, week twenty-five, I have momentum. The S Health pedometer on my Samsung S measured my average daily steps in January at 2,000. In the last 30 days I’ve averaged 10,000 steps per day. Sure, some of them have been diligently striding past the television, but hey, this is progress. As a devout watcher of police procedurals, the sigh-worthy misses this year are: Castle, NCIS, Major Crimes, Rizzoli & Isles, and the rumored last season of CSI (Las Vegas)! So to get my fix I’ve stockpiled thrillers, suspense, and mysteries by Linda Castillo, John Foxjohn, James Patterson, David Morrell, Lee Child, Diane Capri, John Grisham, Greg Iles, Dan Brown, and Joshua Graham. On ships, in cars, on planes, on beaches, and at a cabin in the woods, I will read without commercial interruptions.
While it is true that television and books both provide the illusion of participating in the story, books draw the participant deeper into the mind and heart of a character. Books offer a deeper perspective and a richer experience into worlds and events readers will never experience otherwise.
And yes, I will also work on my own novels. To my readers and fans, buckle up. Prepare for a new book this fall with the cover reveal this summer. Editing continues.
Go ahead and be amazed. This TV junkie has been television-free for sixteen, count ’em, sixteen wonderful weeks. Sure, I ached that I missed the end of season episode of “Major Crimes” and hubby caught me muttering and carrying the remote around the house during the season finale of “Castle,” but thankfully, life has intervened to pull me out of the house and away from temptation.
I’ve hiked in the Smokey Mountains, flown with hubby to lunch in Venice, Florida, spent a few weekends near Asheville, visited family in Las Vegas for a week, and learned how to load and fire various handguns.
My evenings, previously spent in inertia on the sofa–remote in one hand, popcorn in the other–are now filled with stories by Janet Evanovich, Kristan Higgins, John Foxjohn, Sue Monk Kidd, Ian McEwan, Diane Capri, Liane Moriarty, Joshua Graham, and Kristin Hannah. I’ve even discovered books by first-time authors: Deborah Wilding’s Then I Met You, Martha Sibley George’s Goodbye, Miss Emily, and a few others I’m judging for the international Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence contest. Recently enjoyed the second novel by Noelle August. The first book was Boomerang and the second is Rebound. Also read an exciting medical thriller written by a physician friend that should be coming out soon.
I was hired by a national aviation magazine to report on Sun ‘N Fun, the annual general aviation gathering founded by the Experimental Aircraft Association, better known as EAA. Sun ‘N Fun begins next week in Lakeland, Florida. The Brietling Jet Team will be performing airshows, and a few friends will be receiving the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award next week. The son of friends will also be in town after being certified or approved to land on carriers. Is this a great life or what? I get PAID to meet my aviation heroes and write about them.
So, overall I have not missed television. I’m out having fun in the real world and reading wonderful, hilarious, and exciting stories. Oh, and I’m writing a few of my own. One is a 90,000-word suspense story with elements of romance, and the other is an 85,000-word suspense story with elements of romance. My BETA readers and critique partners are chewing through them now. All prayers are appreciated.
Television has brought me to the moon with Neil Armstrong, to Hogwarts with Harry Potter, and to the battlefields to witness war from a safe distance. It delivers world news as well as game shows showing people eating cave spiders. The challenge to live without television for a year is about better use of time. Television watching for me has become a mindless habit and a time suck. Can I meet this challenge?
I haven’t counted how many hours a day or a week were spent gaping at the screen, but even if it was merely an hour a day—that’s seven hours a week! How many times have I asked for more time in the day? Kinda scary to call my own bluff….
Day 1 without television drove me to find things to do that I’ve been putting off, like sorting through a four-drawer shoulder-high filing cabinet for what to keep and what to jettison. We don’t need the warranty and maintenance records on the previous central air conditioner, or magazine and newspaper clippings from articles I’d published since college. Notes from a graduate class on Theatre Theory? Tossed. Lectures and syllabus from a writing course taught to middle-schoolers balled up and shot into the bin. Two points. Revisions of the police academy’s report writing classes I co-taught for three years with a detective and police lieutenant for the Polk Community College–gone. Fortunately the gents who man the recycling truck use a giant mechanical arm to lift the wheeled bins, or they’d be calling me unkind names.
Day 2, a Friday, and handsome invited me to the movie Unbroken. Some of you may say I lasted only one day, but this was a movie screen. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Day 3, after blowing dust off my iron, I ironed a few shirts to stay away from the tv. Later attended a Jewish wedding at a museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. Walked around the marina near the museum and saw dolphins playing among the anchored sailboats. Soooo much more fun that slouching in the sofa with a bowl of popcorn in one hand and a remote in the other. Could that be a contributing factor in my holiday weight gain? Hmmm.
Day 4, Handsome invited me to fly with him to lunch in Venice, Florida. Winds a tad too gusty for me, so he did all the flying. I haven’t piloted a plane in months, partly because the plane was in the shop for repairs, but also because my editing business picked up dramatically this year. Ahhh, the smell of avgas. The sound of the 550 Lycoming engine. I’ve missed you, sweet Centurion, N761XD.
Day 5, keeping up with dishes and laundry. Even filled the Keurig twice. Walked nowhere for an hour on the elliptical machine and then did yoga for thirty minutes. Instead of having television on, tunes played from my cellphone. Didn’t realize how visually oriented my life had become until the blinking screen turned dark.
Day 6, picked up pal Marylou Hess and rode down to Sarasota with a box of books for our mutual friend Martha Sibley George to sign. Martha’s first book is a beautiful historical set in WWII era. Martha has longed to publish her own book since college. What a joy to read Goodbye, Miss Emilyat last.
Day 7. Finally have time to work on my own suspense trilogy. Round three of edits to streamline the structure and reduce the point of view characters from seven in early drafts to three. Thanks go out to critique partners: authors Melissa Hladik Meyer, KD Fleming, Carol J. Post, Jamie Beckett, John Foxjohn and the Lethal Ladies group. Your honesty and bluntness illuminate the flaws and guide the way to improving the stories.
Dear gentle reader, what would you do with an extra seven hours a week?