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The Middle Grade Mafia is pleased to welcome back frequent contributor and friend, Janice Hardy. Her posts always provide amazing writing tips and today she is here with another must read!

Why We Tell, Instead of Show, in Our Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I think one of the bigger issues with show, don’t tell, is that it’s hard to know why telling happens in the first place. Sometimes it’s a simple skill issue, but more often than not, told prose sneaks into our work without us realizing it. It’s harder to fix when we don’t know it’s there, especially if it’s the more subtle (and sneaky) variety.

Generally, telling happens when we’re trying to convey information to readers and we don’t know how to do it within the context of the scene we’re writing. It’s easier to back up and summarize instead of dramatize. We tell, because we don’t know how to show.

We have all this information and imagery in our heads and it doesn’t make it to the page, even when we think it does. We know a character is feeling a certain way, but we have trouble articulating that emotion. We know events unfold in a scene, but the exact details of those events are murky and we’re not sure how they play out. We know why characters act as they do and assume our readers will understand the same as we do. Which they don’t, so our stories feel detached and flat, lacking the emotion we feel when we read our own words.

Telling also happens when we need writing shorthand, which is actually a good thing. Our muse is on fire and our writing momentum is strong, so stopping that creative flow to flesh out one or two words will slow or stop the momentum. Adverbs are useful placeholder words that identify an emotion or action until we can come back later and flesh out that idea. A single line of dialogue “said angrily” might become a passionate two-page scene between romantic leads during our revision. We tell, knowing we can return to that scene later and develop it into something profound—except sometimes we forget to go back and do just that. And if we don’t revise quickly enough, we might lose that passion altogether and forget what we’d wanted to write. Often, we also forget they’re just first-draft words and we’re harder on ourselves for “bad writing” than we should be.

It’s also common to tell when we haven’t yet learned the skills to dramatize a scene, or we don’t know what details to put into a scene. Our writing skills are still developing and we don’t know which of the images in our heads to put on the page and which ones to discard.

And of course, telling can also happen if the subject is too painful to write and we need to keep our distance. We know a scene is vital to the story, but showing it is hard. Maybe it’s an emotion we don’t want to personally face, or something we have trouble relating to. Skimming the surface of the emotions or situation makes it easier to bear.

As much as we try to show and not tell, telling is part of storytelling. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to end up in our stories, so we don’t need to fear it. Some of the things we tell will serve our stories and some of them will hurt them–and it’s our job as writers to figure out the difference.

If you’re struggling with show, don’t tell, step back and analyze why you might be telling.

  • Is there something about the story you’re still trying to figure out?
  • Do you lack the skills necessary to dramatize a strong scene?
  • Is the scene emotionally difficult for you to write?
  • Is it just first-draft writing and you’re being too hard on yourself?

Show, don’t tell is so subjective that it helps to consider how and why it gets into our writing so we can best deal with it. If we’re not ready to write a scene, all the advice on red flag telling words and fixing told prose won’t help. If we don’t yet have the necessary skills to show what’s in our head, seeing the scene perfectly in our minds won’t get it onto the page. But when we know why it’s happening, then we’ll know how to approach fixing it.

Do you know why you tell?

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Check out my new book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don’t tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn’t always work.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished DraftShe’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

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*Excerpted from Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It)

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