by Barbara Linn Probst
I worry, sometimes, that we’ve gotten in the habit of thinking of telling as the bad twin and showing as the good one—as if there are only two options and, of those, only one that the skillful writer would choose.
It’s more complex, however. And we have more options. Let’s take a fictitious story-moment and look at...
Here’s the scenario: Evelyn, our imaginary POV character, has just been blindsided and let-down by her friend Kerry. At the last minute, Kerry has reneged on a promise to meet Evelyn for lunch during her layover in Dallas, something that Evelyn was looking forward to. Although it’s hardly a life-or-death matter, Evelyn is angry and hurt. It isn’t the first—or second—time that Kerry has done something like this; Kerry’s casual sorry in response to her just confirming makes Evelyn feel devalued and dismissed, yet she keeps believing Kerry will keep her word because they’ve known each other since adolescence and, she thought, have a deep connection.
The scene takes place at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Evelyn has phoned Kerry, who’s just delivered the bad news. Your goal, as the writer, is to make the reader see, believe, and empathize with Evelyn’s response.
You can sabotage that goal by doing too much—if Evelyn’s reaction feels over-the-top for the situation or is conveyed through a chain of repetitious clichés. You can also undermine your goal by doing too little—if you gloss over the moment and miss the chance to bring Evelyn’s feelings to life before moving on to the next story beat.
Viewing the moment in the context of the entire manuscript, you can also undermine your goal by doing the same thing in every scene, predictably, and to the exclusion of other techniques.
A useful approach—for self-diagnosis and, if needed, for varying your repertoire—is to consider the different ways you can convey a POV character’s response.
Evelyn was livid.
Short and sweet, this can be all you need, or can serve as a lead-in to an action or conversation.
Anger snatched her up with a swipe of its claw, the way her cat snatched at an unsuspecting mouse.
Anger surged through her.
Here, the emotion, not Evelyn, is the subject of the sentence. Used strategically, this can be very effective because it draws the reader right inside the emotion itself.
This was exactly the sort of thing that Kerry always did. Why did she always fall for it? She never seemed to learn.
This is the voice of the POV character, talking to herself as if she were another person. This kind of interiority has gotten a bad reputation lately (“in her head”), but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It will misfire, however, if it goes on too long, is employed too frequently, or is used as an all-too-obvious ploy to convey information that the author wants the reader to know, especially if it refers to backstory.
Put yourself in Evelyn’s shoes. In the middle of an intense emotional reaction, would you really tell yourself a detailed story about something you already know? Of course not!
However, if that anecdote has already appeared in the book, then a quick reference to it, in the present scene, can be very effective. In the example above, Evelyn is remembering a pattern. Words like “always fall for it” and “never seemed to learn” will evoke that pattern in the reader too.
Used judiciously, this can also be a place for the POV character to worry about something that might happen in the future.
This was exactly the sort of thing that Kerry always did. What if she pulled that disappearing stunt again at the meeting with Lionel, when she really needed Kerry to come through for her?
Damn it. That woman made her blood boil. She wanted to reach through the cell phone and grab Kerry by her shoulders, right in the middle of her oh-so-airy shrug, and scream into her smug little face.
This kind of blow-by-blow emotional accompaniment to the narrative is associated with what’s called “close third-person POV.” Explicit rather than evocative, overt rather than subtle, it’s meant to pull the reader deep inside the experience. For me, a little goes a long way. Used endlessly, it feels like I’m being bombarded and told what to feel. It’s most effective, in my view, when saved for climactic moments and interspersed with techniques that give the reader more space.
Evelyn felt her stomach twist.
The fist in her stomach twisted another forty-five degrees.
Instead of being named or described, the reaction is evoked through a bodily sensation that readers can recognize. The reader will make the connection; the author doesn’t have to tell her to.
In the first example, Evelyn is the subject of the sentence. In the second, the fist itself is the subject. As with other techniques, the challenge is to use visceral examples that are universal enough to be recognizable, but not trite.
“Actually, it’s not okay,” Evelyn snapped.
The verb “snapped” is economical, conveying a tone of voice and the emotion behind it in a single word. Although used freely in the past, adverbs are now frowned on, so strong verbs can be a good alternative—again, if used strategically.
“Actually,” Evelyn said, her voice cold, “it’s not okay.”
“Actually,” Evelyn said. She dropped the words like chips of ice. “Actually, it’s not okay.”
Here, the generic “said” is accompanied by an extra phrase that tells the reader how the comment is being uttered. It’s another way of doing what adverbs used to do.
Evelyn sucked in her breath. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not okay.”
Evelyn lifted a strand of hair from her cheek and placed it carefully behind her ear.
The first example describes what else Evelyn is doing before or as she speaks. Unlike the example above, it doesn’t tell the reader how she is speaking. Rather, it adds to the overall impression by bringing in another sense, beyond the auditory.
In the second example, nothing is said. Instead, gesture is used to show how Evelyn is feeling. Presumably, by this point in the story the reader will know what “adjusting a strand of hair” means for her, especially if it’s a characteristic gesture—if it’s her way of buying time, feeling in control by putting things in their proper places, self-soothing, and so on.
Evelyn crossed the boarding area in three quick strides and banged her hand against the wall.
This strategy differs from the use of gesture because it puts the POV into interaction with her environment. As a result, something (or someone) outside of herself may be affected, and additional events may be set in motion.
The airport corridor was filled with people hurrying to and from the gates, dragging suitcases or holding cups of coffee aloft. Evelyn stopped, the phone still pressed to her cheek, as people stepped around her in surges of color and movement. She was the only person not moving, the only one with nowhere to go.
We’ve pulled back, away from Evelyn’s close POV, and can see her in the airport after Kerry has delivered the unexpected news. We’re not inside her thoughts or emotions, yet we can “see” very clearly how she feels.
Telling, showing, and everything in-between. Used with intention, all these options are good. The same caution can be applied to all, of course: Beware of overuse.
A useful exercise is to go through a few chapters of your WIP to see when, and how often, you’ve used each technique, since we all have habits and preferences. There may even be some that you never use! If you’re working on a laptop, you can highlight instances of each technique in a different color font; on paper, you can circle them with a different colored pen.
If you suspect that you need variety, think about which approach might be most effective at a particular moment.
1. Is this a moment for economy or for lingering? Will economy short-change the reader’s experience? Will lingering interrupt the flow of the story?
2. Is this a moment when we want to see the character and her reaction in a larger context—how it’s part of the chain of her life, or how it’s embedded in a particular time and place?
3. Is this an important turning point in her emotional journey? If so, it might call for some interior reflection.
4. Is this a shock or a moment of high intensity? If so, how can you pull the reader into the character’s sensations and body, as well as her emotions?
5. Does the reader need some space, a chance to have her own response, after several intense and immersive scenes?
Over to you, now:
As a writer, do you tend to use one or more of the techniques listed? As a reader, is there a style you especially like? Are any of the techniques new ideas for you, that you might want to try? Please share with us in the comments!
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launched April 2021.
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