“Show—don’t tell.” Everyone focuses on the ‘showing’ part because it is natural to ‘tell’ instead of ‘show’. However, to avoid something, you must know exactly what it is you are to avoid. Being unaware of the boundaries of telling and showing is like swimming in the ocean and pretending there are no great white sharks, humpback whales, and other breathtaking and unimaginable creatures in the depth below you.
What is telling? How can you recognize telling in your own writing? Thankfully telling is easy to identify. Pick up a story—could be yours or anything within reach. Study the sentences. Do they include any of the following words (outside of dialogue)?
Am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being
Have, has, had
Do, does, did
May, might, must
Except for the last word in the list, all these are helping verbs. They make the passages passive instead of active. In and of themselves, these words are not evil. No need to blacklist them. They exist because they have a purpose and a proper place; we simply need to rediscover that purpose and that place.
When writing anything, you need two ingredients to form a proper sentence: a subject and a verb. In essays, articles, letters, and copy, any form of verbs can be used. However, stories or poetry contain movement to convey the story or the image, and action verbs are best suited for such movement.
Example 1: Mary was walking down the street when she noticed the approaching storm.
Revision: Walking down the street, Mary noticed the approaching storm.
Example 2: It had been a long time since Nathan last spoke with his brother.
Revision: Years passed since Nathan and his brother last spoke.
There are many ways to revise in order to eliminate helping verbs from sentences to make them active rather than passive. It is good exercise, and it stretches your writer’s mind to set such limitations and force yourself to get creative.
Should helping verbs be completely forbidden in novel writing? If only it were that easy, but no. Writing is much more complex than to allow such a simple solution. There are three steps to determine whether to tell a sentence or show it:
- try to show it, but if it interrupts the flow of the writing and is awkward then
- determine whether the sentence is absolutely necessary. If it is then
- write the sentence telling.
The key is being aware of what you are showing and what you are telling.
“When I’m writing, do I have to be so strict and thorough with everything I do?” —short answer: yes. Every word, every sentence, paragraph, and scene must have a meaning to be structured the way it is. If you cannot explain the reason, then it is unnecessary.
Am I giving license for everyone to justify writing errors that are obviously wrong just because they don’t want to go back and fix things? No. A true writer will seek to understand his own reason for writing the way he did and be willing to explain it. “What was your purpose with this?” someone might ask a writer, and if the writer gives an answer, the person might be able to say, “Okay, if that’s what you want, then maybe you should rephrase this because that’s where I get confused.” And the writer should consider this advice.
Later I’ll talk more on how to edit cinemagraphic writing, but first as you begin to write cinemagraphically, I would encourage you to exclude those listed words from your writing. Once you have mastered the ability to show without them, then you can slowly allow those words back into your writing vocabulary.
EXCEPTION: Using helping verbs in dialogue is the only exception. Dialogue is a different creature than narrative, and each character has their own unique voice. If you attempt to eliminate passive voice in dialogue, you run risk of losing your character’s voice altogether.
Next we will discuss the last word on that list—’said’.