Showing versus Telling & Subtlety

Sometimes being subtle is more descriptive, I’ve found.  Saying “they were brothers” is specific, but not really descriptive. What kind of relationship do they have? Are they estranged or close?


I realized that while writing about the siblings in my story. I did say outright that they were two brothers and a sister—but the important part is actually the way they treat each other.  For example, they argue a lot. Especially the older two. And yet they also have pet nicknames for each other. These two things together show both how close they are and yet also how imperfect their relationship is.

Yet it’s also totally subtle. I never pointed out either of these two things (or any of the other ways they treat each other that help suggest their relationship), but it still helps the reader figure out what the dynamics are between the characters, way better than me saying “they’re siblings” does.  Or even “the siblings were close, but they had some issues”.

Actually, this is exactly what showing instead of telling is. I am showing their relationships.

I think there actually is a place for telling, somewhat. In this particular situation, who’s to say that my “showing” won’t leave the reader just assuming they’re really good friends, rather than siblings?  I think I show their being family well enough, but that’s certainly something to consider, hence why I actually do say they are siblings.

I hesitate to let this turn into another “showing versus telling” post, because there’s already so many of them out there.  But it really clicked with me, this time, exactly what showing is.

In all the examples of showing versus telling I’ve seen in the past, it always seems to be smaller things.  Say, emotion.  Show the emotion, don’t just tell me she’s angry.  Right?  We know that.   (On the subject of showing emotions, the Emotion Thesaurus is awesome for helping with that.)

But showing is so much deeper than that.  In fact, it occurred to me, you can show while telling.  Take, for example, a description of a room.  If you describe the room, you’re probably telling.  But while you’re telling me what the room looks like, you can pick your words so that at the same time, you’re showing what the narrator thinks/feels about the room.

Another thing is character arcs.  Or character personalities.  Do we tell our readers upfront that this character is saucy?  Well, maybe, but then what do we do?  Show their sauciness.  And then as the story progresses, again, we show the character development.  What good would development be if it was all told?

Once upon a time, Selena was a spoiled child who had no idea what privileges she had.  Then her father declared bankruptcy and she lost everything.  She got a taste for what life is like at the poverty level, and she found humility.


That really isn’t how we develop characters.  Or introduce characters.  Or introduce events.  Or…really any of that.  I’m pretty sure even the “the end” is telling.  (You know, usually we show readers they reached the end by having a back cover after the last page.)

Or world-building!  Isn’t that all showing, as well?  (Of course, there is the occasional world-building info-dump because I think it’s impossible to avoid info-dumps 100%, but still, that isn’t how all of it’s shown.  Or even most.)

Showing goes way deeper than just a simple “her cheeks turned pink and she looked at the ground” instead of “she was ashamed”.  And I think the best showing is so subtle, you don’t necessarily know you’re being shown.


Embracing Change in Your Style

When I first started writing, I knew I was a discovery writer.  I listened to a Writing Excuses episode, and somebody, I don’t even remember who, made a comment about how writers should try both discovery writing and outlining/planning.  I don’t remember the exact reason he said, but I’m sure I could figure it out—they’re two different writing techniques, and sometimes, you can learn from both.  Or maybe that you’ll discover you’re not the one you think you are.  Or, really, it’s just a good thing to try new things, and trying the opposite of what you always do is definitely a new thing, right?  I scoffed, thinking that I wasn’t a planner, and I’d never ever be a planner, and I didn’t need to try being a planner.

Guess what?

I’m a planner.

Yeah, go ahead and laugh.  I’m already laughing.  But you wanna hear something even funnier?  When I was little, I wanted to be one of those artists who can draw something, and then people would go, “Wait, that isn’t a photograph?”  I wanted perfect realism.  I wanted to draw something that really would look like a photograph and people would have to take a second—and third and fourth—look before they realized it wasn’t.

Guess what I draw now?

I really have no idea, but it isn’t realism.

Here’s a lesson for you all, right from my own experience.

Don’t be afraid to explore.  Exploration makes you better at what you do.

Somewhere along the lines, I somehow started planning one of my novels.  I don’t really remember how or why I did it, but I did, and my writing turned out better.  It made me stop and think… Hmm.  Maybe I’m not a pantser after all.

I ended up writing more things that were pantsed and more things that were planned, before I finally realized that, yeah, I’m a planner.  I do discovery write somewhat, and I do enjoy it.  But I plan more often than not lately, because when I plan, I’m more likely to end with not only a slightly better written and less plot-hole-y first draft, but an actually finished first draft (which was a hard thing for me, for a while).

The truth is, if I hadn’t explored the idea of planning, and if I had just stuck with discovery writing, I probably would not be where I am right now.  I would have more half-finished projects where right now they are finished, and I’d probably be a lot more frustrated and discouraged simply because of that fact.  That sounds like fun, right?  Everybody wants to be discouraged.


You can’t succeed at something if you don’t try it, right?  Well, try it, and then fail or succeed.  Learn what works.  Learn what doesn’t work.  Are you a planner or a pantser?  Or are you right smack dab in the middle? Do you use elements of both?  Do you outline extensively, or do you have a loose outline?  Do you write an outline, and then defenestrate the outline at the first change you have?

What seems to work best for me is to have a loose outline, just enough that it tells me the general events and plot, and I get to know my characters a little (but not even extensively), and then I discovery write all the rest.  I even discovery write the emotions, strange as that sounds.  I may know of an event that will greatly affect a character, but I don’t even know for sure how it’ll affect them, until I start writing it, and they take it in the direction that’s best for them, and I learn something new about them at the same time.

Even if, in the end, you discover that you’re writing style is exactly what you thought it was to begin with, you’ll still have learned new things and, more importantly, you should have had fun.  (Writing is all fun and games, right?  Riiiiight?)

Don’t resist the change when it finds you.

One of the hardest things I had to accept at first was that…I was wrong.  I had been so completely and totally wrong about myself.  Hard hit to the pride, for one.  I didn’t want to accept I had been wrong, and I didn’t want to give up what I’d been doing before, and I didn’t want to be a planner.  Planners are so boring.  They know their stories in advance and they don’t discover anything and that’s so boring.

(That’s a huge lie, by the way.  Even if you do outline the story to death, perhaps through the Snowflake Method, if it was that boring, nobody would do it.  [And considering the Snowflake Method exists in the first place, well… you see.])

I think in probably all aspects of life, accepting change is hard.  I had the same issues with realizing that I really didn’t want to draw realism (or at least exclusively realism), too.  But change is important.  Change is what allows growth and improvement.

I mean, think about it.  Improvement is change.  If you improve…you’re changing, aren’t you?  You’re changing from bad or mediocre or even good to better.  So if you don’t change, you don’t improve.  Simple as that.

Change wants to be your friend.


Now go do what works best for you.

Well, that says it all, mostly.  Go do it.  And remember, finding change, seeing change, embracing change—it’s the key to improvement.

So go improve.

And because GIFs make everything better, here’s Ten basically summing up the essence of discovery writing.

I Will Do This… I Think [On Writing Confidently]

If you listen closely, a lot of people say “uh” or “um” while they’re talking.  It’s a normal hesitation, born from our tendency to speak before we’ve fully formed what we want to say.  In fact, not only that—but we repeat ourselves a lot.  Not necessarily because we feel the need to reiterate our words, but usually both happen because we’re trying to gather our thoughts together enough to finish what we’re saying.

Hold that thought for a moment.

A while ago, I don’t remember when, exactly, but it probably started around mid 2013-ish, I started having issues with my writing.  Something about my writing style felt off, but I had no idea what it was.  A friend offered to critique my novel to help me out, but that didn’t end up panning out, I think probably because of school and stuff.  (Though, I very much appreciated that friend offering to help, and I hope he realizes that.)  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed to just keep going and not worry about what was off.

After all, does the writing style worry so much in draft one?  At that point in time, I didn’t even have a finished first draft to work on, so my concentration needed to be on finishing something, not micro-editing it, yeah?  So I kept going.

Obviously, it’s been a while since 2013.  My plan worked.  I kept writing, and late last year, I finished a project.  I’m still not at the point where I can micro-edit—I’m still barely past two-thirds of the way through draft two, and I know draft three will still have lots of macro-edits, thanks to random plot twists and disobedient characters that made draft two still not totally coherent (but still better than draft one).  However, since that time, my writing style has changed and I feel more confident about it.

In fact, I daresay, I like my voice.  Not to say I can’t stand for improvements, but I feel like I have a good basis.  What changed?

First of all, I had more experience.  Funny what experience can do and how it can change things, even if it’s just the tiny bit that I had.

But what I want to focus on here is—confidence.

I started sounding more confident.

Now, you remember how we were talking about how people naturally hesitate and repeat themselves?  Somewhere along the lines, I noticed this, and I started to insert it into my writing, thinking that if I did so, then I’d make my characters’ speech sound more realistic.

Simultaneously, I did another thing.  For a writer and an artist, I suck at noticing things. I also am really horrible at picking out people’s intentions.  So many times somebody’s said something, and then I found out they actually meant something different than what they said, and, I honestly had no idea until they told me.  Unless it was sarcasm.  Don’t ask me why, but I can pick up sarcasm, but nothing else of that sort.  (And my family likes to use straight-faced sarcasm.  Not easy to do or to pick up on, believe me.  But I’m not half bad at it.)

As a result of that, when I’d write, I’d sometimes wonder if I would fail to pick up on things in my own writing.  For example, I’d have a character, and I’d be pretty sure she was fierce, but… then I’d wonder, what if I was writing it wrong or misunderstanding my own writing, and she was actually just…cruel?  So what I did was instead of writing “fierce”, instead I’d find a way to not use the word at all, or I’d stick an adverb in front of it, and say something like “kind of fierce”.  Then, if she wasn’t fierce, I wouldn’t really be wrong, because I said “kind of fierce” not “fierce“.

It really doesn’t work that way.  For example:

“It’s kind of hot out here.”

“It is not.  It’s actually really nice.”

“I said ‘kind of’ hot.”

“No, it isn’t hot at all!  Feel this breeze; its really nice.”

I have conversations like this with my younger brothers.  It really doesn’t work the way they intend it to—often, it’s just annoying.  And it makes you sound really hesitant.

Now listen to this:

“She—she isn’t here… I think she’s, uh, back at the hotel.”

Versus this:

“She isn’t here; she’s back at the hotel.”

I did both of these things.  And the result was that my writing sounded very, very hesitant and unsure of itself.  Of course it sounded off!  I might as well have been a six year old talking about astrophysics.  Except that that six year old would have still sounded more confident than me.  (Little kids have this strange way of sounding as if they knew exactly what they’re talking about, even when they clearly don’t.)

Do I still do these things?  Yes.    I can’t say I’m past saying “I think” and “kind of” everywhere, but I’m more aware of it, and I’m fixing it.  And I still have plenty of “uh”s and “um”s in my writing, but only where I want a character to sound hesitant.  The above examples—that top one isn’t wrong.  That could be a perfectly fine piece of dialogue.  But it’d be in a very different scene than the second one, wouldn’t it?

Hesitation is a tool, to be used like any other emotion.  But it can be used wrongly or in the wrong situations.  Or just plain overused. And what’s the result of sounding hesitant all the time?

Well, apparently, your writing will sound off.

But you’ll also feel less confident.  Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?  Are you sure that’s what happened?  Are you sure it wasn’t this, instead?

You are the writer.  You are putting the words on the page.  You know what happened for sure.  Even if you feel like your characters are in control of you, you still know what’s going on.  Your job is to communicate this story from the lives of your characters’, and into the imaginations of your readers.  How can you do that if you sound hesitant?

No.  Be confident.  She is at the hotel.  The weather is pleasant.  There is a nice breeze.

Your readers will believe you when you tell them this.  They will not believe you when you tack an “I think” onto the end.


All These Voices In My Head Sound Like Me

I’ve always thought that dialogue was my strong suit with writing.  I don’t really know if that’s the case, because I’ve never had anybody tell me that, but when I wrote dialogue, I felt confident about it.  Meanwhile, even still, if I have to describe something, usually I start scowling and write something really bare-bones that I’ll need to add to later because I want to just get past the description and move on already.

Why is it I felt confident with dialogue?

Part of it is that I would sometimes listen to people talking, and I’d take note of it.  I’m not really sure if anybody notices this, but I picked up on that everybody has a different way of speaking.  Sometimes it’s obvious things like—when this person talks, she moves her hands and gestures with everything.  But there’s also smaller differences, in the way they word sentences.  Because there are so many different ways you can say the same thing, and different ways will give it different meaning and different personality.

When I noticed this, I noticed that all of my characters said things the same way—the way I spoke.  They worded things the exact same way I would word it.  And in some ways, I don’t think this was truly a big problem, because they are my characters, but it makes it hard to make them unique.

Because, see.  I think the general rule with dialogue is that if you can get away with no dialogue tag, you don’t use a dialogue tag.  And the way you do that is to make it really obvious who’s talking by what they’re saying.  And if all of the characters sound the same, how can you do this?

You make them sound different.

So I started listening to the different ways people worded things and tried to pick up on it, and make my characters’ voices sound more unique.  To this day, I honestly don’t really know how well I did, but it was an important thing to do, listening to people talk, I think.  And it gave me an interesting skill, too.  I’m pretty good at telling when a character—or a even a real person—doesn’t sound like themselves.

Making characters sound different doesn’t have to be real drastic.  This doesn’t mean dropping all contractions for a regal character, or adding an accent that makes the words unpronounceable, or using “thee” and “thou”.  Not that you can’t do those things, but you don’t use that to make them sound unique.  (I do have a character that doesn’t use any contractions.  It sounds really awkward and stilted, so I wouldn’t recommend it.  But she’s a computer, so I can get away with it, I think.)

Instead, you do it in small ways.  This is like the difference between saying “How are you?” and “What’s up?”  Or when someone calls your name, I’ve heard people respond with “What?” and some respond with “Yeah?” Or even “Huh?”  Or the difference between saying the full “I don’t know” versus “I dunno”.

On the opposite note, as important as it is to make characters have unique voices, it’s also important, I think, to make sure that the characters still all sound like they belong to the same world and that they all fit with your writing style.  I’ve honestly never had a character say “What’s up?” because I never say that.  The phrase never honestly actually crosses my mind.  (Probably doesn’t help that my favorite way to respond to that question is to just smartly report whatever happens to be above my head at the time.  Nobody’s asked me what’s up in a long time, hehe…)

And also.  People tend to talk like whoever they hang around with the most.  So many times I’ve said something, and then thought that I sounded like a friend of mine or even one of my siblings.  It happens.  So remember that with characters.

So to conclude this post, here’s a random dialogue prompt that…sort of relates to this topic.

See, it relates!  Because manners can affect how somebody speaks, right?