A few weeks ago I blogged a list of weasel words—words that dilute the meaning of your prose. One category was telling words such as: saw, noticed, smelled, heard, felt, tasted, knew, realized, thought, believed, wondered, recognized, wished, seemed, and supposed.
What’s wrong with telling words?
They’re perfectly fine words, frankly. But today’s readers are looking for an immersive experience. They want to feel as though they are the character, experiencing the story, not being told about it.
Telling words tell the reader how to intepret.
Consider the two examples below:
She noticed Zach lean back in the chair and look her up and down. She knew it wasn’t in a romantic way. It seemed more like he was trying to intimidate her.
She didn’t see why she should stand for it.
Read it aloud. Do you notice how clunky it is? The author is explaining things to you. Explaining Jo’s thoughts as she sees what Zach does. It’s information, not an experience.
Now read this:
Zach leaned back in the chair and ran his gaze down and up her. Not, sadly, in a romantic way. More like an intimidation attempt.
Well, she wouldn’t stand for it.
- Why show not tell? Telling words tell the reader how to interpret and bog down story: click to tweet
- Readers want to experience a story not get told about it. click to tweet
Telling words bog down the story
In this snippet, Zach’s mom is after him to settle down and get married.
Zach tried not to groan. He was tired of Mom begging him to find a wife. “Not looking for anyone right now, remember?” he said. “Not here, not anywhere.”
“But you’re twenty-seven,” she said wistfully. “We had two children when your father was your age.”
She had told him that a dozen times before. But watching his parents hadn’t recommended their lifestyle to him. They had had four children and no money to do anything. They couldn’t afford vacations or even fixing up the house. He looked around the kitchen. It still contained old painted cabinets and metal-rimmed countertops. There was no room for a dishwasher.
Mom interrupted his thoughts. “You’re not getting any younger,” she said. “Now that you’ve got your veterinary degree…”
Now read the way I actually wrote the same segment:
Zach stifled a groan. When would she let up trying to find him a wife? “Not looking for anyone right now, remember? Not here, not anywhere.”
“But you’re twenty-seven. We had two children when your father was your age.”
Yeah, he’d heard the story a dozen times. But look where that had gotten his folks. Four offspring and always too broke to go on vacation or fix up the house. The kitchen still sported old painted cabinets and metal-rimmed countertops with no space for a dishwasher.
“You’re not getting any younger. Now that you’ve got your veterinary degree…”
Notice the tighter pace when the he said/she said is eliminated completely. You don’t need me to tell you that Mom interrupted his thoughts. He’s thinking, and then she speaks. That’s an interruption, and you (the reader) are smart enough to get that.
You also don’t need to be told she said it wistfully. If the reader can’t pick up on that from the words themselves and the body language, you, the writer, need to portray it more clearly without saying it.
Of course, you can’t show everything or the story would be a billion words long. Sometimes you have to use a few telling words judiciously to keep momentum!
Use telling words to give information quickly
The tractor grew louder then shifted gears and turned into the Green Acres driveway. Domino was off like a spooked rabbit, only headed toward the danger. Jo bellowed at him, but he was already so far away he didn’t seem to hear at all.
“Hope Zach’s watching out for the stupid mutt,” said Claire.
Jo waved both arms frantically as she ran, hoping to catch Zach’s attention before Domino dodged in front of the tractor. Zach yanked on the wheel and spun the tractor hard to the right. Jo held her breath, but the machine was more stable than she’d given it credit for.
Zach swerved left again and ground the equipment to a halt while Domino continued to dance around it.
All of that action took a bit of time. I glossed over the details with a few telling words so that the important stuff popped out.
Your turn. Where do you find the balance between showing and telling words? Any questions or comments?
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net