Monday, September 10, 2012

Physical Telling: Action Speaks Louder Than Body Parts!


Hearts hammering, breaths catching, stomachs roiling…

Reading manuscript after manuscript, lately I’ve noticed a pattern: writers rely too heavily on body parts—specifically the heart, lungs, guts, mouth, eyes, cheeks—to show character reactions/feelings/responses. It’s natural, I suppose, to fall back on the most obvious degree of description (aside from flat-out telling the emotion), but that’s the problem—it’s obvious, it’s easy, and guess what? It’s lazy.      

So, if we can’t tell what emotion the character is feeling (i.e. The way he looked at me angered me.) we should be able to showcase those feelings in physical reactions (i.e. The way he looked at me sent a rush of fire to my cheeks.). Right?

Not exactly.

Like I said, this type of physical telling is a shortcut. And believe me, it comes across as such. (Once you learn to spot them, they pop off the page like a zit on a beauty queen.) Getting across what a character is going through or feeling without the use of these overused bodily reactions takes skill and practice, and is in no way easy. And worse, there’s not a step-by-step formula.

Many authors are masters of this. John Green, for one. Let’s look at a paragraph I pulled from Looking for Alaska:

Dolores insisted that Alaska and I share the bed, and she slept on the pull-out while the Colonel was out in his tent. I worried he would get cold, but frankly I wasn’t about to give up my bed with Alaska. We had separate blankets, and there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night.

 

Now, for those who haven’t read this AMAZING book, just know that Miles really likes Alaska. And this is a perfect example of why Mr. Green is a master, because he didn’t fall back on the obvious reaction Miles would be having sleeping next to the girl he loves and can’t have. No doubt Miles’s heart was racing and his breath was rapid, palms sweaty—all those nervous reactions, but in fact this last line: there were never fewer than three layers between us, but the possibilities kept me up half the night says WAY more.

Okay let’s look at another example (again from Looking for Alaska because, well, the book is THAT good). This is a conversation Miles has with his friend, the Colonel:

“Yeah, well. If you’re staying here in hopes of making out with Alaska, I sure wish you wouldn’t. If you unmoor her from the rock that is Jake, God have mercy on us all. That would be some drama, indeed. And as a rule, I like to avoid drama.”

“It’s not because I want to make out with her.”

“Hold on.” He grabbed a pencil and scrawled excitedly at the paper as if he’d just made a mathematical breakthrough and then looked back up at me. “I just did some calculations, and I’ve been able to determine that you’re full of shit.”

 
One simple action accompanied by some punchy dialogue to avoid the tried and untrue. The Colonel didn’t narrow his eyes in suspicion at Miles or widen them in surprise. Didn’t wrinkle his brow. No set jaw or lips pressed flat. No body parts at all!

Excuse me while I fan myself.

So you can see, “showing not telling” isn’t a matter of wording the physical reaction more creatively (i.e. His eyes skimmed over my face and I looked away, feeling as if laser beams were burning into my skin.). Agents, editors, even us interns can spot those too.  

It’s not easy, trust me I know. But who said writing was?

(I wrote this while reading John Green. It's been stuck to my computer since.)
 

Taking the time to authenticate your characters’ reactions (every one of them) will launch your writing to a whole new level. Try it. You’ll see.
 
 
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26 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post! I admittedly have a problem with this that I'm trying to work through. I used to rely waaaaay too much on physical descriptors, and it shows in my very first MS. I've had someone tell me it was "lazy writing," and while that stung, it's true. Actions speak louder! :)

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  2. Oooooh, such great examples! This is one of those easy crutches but John Green sure makes it look easy to avoid. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Great article! Thank you so much for sharing! I love reading your posts! So helpful. ;)

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  4. Thank you! This is one of the most helpful explanations of show-don't-tell I've ever seen.

    (FYI, I'm now entering the word verification code for the 4th time, attempting to see it correctly - I'm not sure why some are more difficult than others, but it's often what stops me from commenting on blogs.)

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  5. Ugh. I, too, didn't realize how much I do this until I read this. Thank you for this lesson. I fear I have some more revising to do. Arg, this never-ending learning...

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  6. Man, did you nail this, Nicole. Great examples, too. I'm putting a sticky note with the same note to myself on my computer tonight.

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  7. I do this ALL THE TIME, argh! but your examples are fantastic. Well John Green is fantastic so you can't go wrong by using him. I'm bookmarking this post :)

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  8. Reading this, you made my heart race and my blood pound and my lungs collapse and all that. Love this post! =)

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  9. I love this post. I'm mad I don't have any post-its left (I want to write one down just like yours). And I'm tempted to read Looking for Alaska.

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  10. Great post, and a definite eye-opener. I'm sure if I read back on my own writing, I will be doing a lot of cringing!

    If any one has more examples, I would LOVE to hear/read them. I definitely understand from the John Green examples, but if any other writer's works comes to mind, that would be awesome!

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  11. Terrific post! Thanks! It turns out my characters spend way too much time narrowing their eyes at each other. They're also all on the verge of heart collapse what with all the thumping, thudding and pounding. :)

    I haven't read Looking for Alaska, but The Fault in our Stars was one of the best books I read this year.

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  12. This is excellent! I know I'm guilty.

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  13. Great post and lots of food for thought.

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  14. Thank you for this post! I've heard agents/editors/authors tell us writers to avoid the physical descriptions, but they never tell us HOW to do it instead of what we've been relying on through body parts. This helps so much to be able to see what can be used instead of the old heart/stomach fall backs.

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  15. Fantastic post, Nicole. Love the examples. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to show the visceral response too often--so often that it becomes ineffective, especially if you are writing a tense book.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    Martina

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  16. Really great post! Your examples are amazing. I need to read this book. :)

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  17. This is great! It is okay to tell sometimes.... rather than show. I've been wanting to read this book for a long time, too.

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  18. I feel so busted now. ;-) Lots of body parts action going on in my MS. Thanks for bringing attention to it, and for showing us great examples of the alternative. John Green is the bomb-diggety.

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  19. This is a really great post, and incredibly eye-opening! Thanks a lot : )

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  20. Really great advice. This is something I never even considered and I now realize that I'm a huge offender.

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  21. This is very true and an area in my own writing I'm working on. Thanks for topic and advice! :) But in these examples, "I worried" and "excitedly" appear. I'm under the impression that naming the emotions / using adverbs is by far the worst thing to do when it comes to conveying emotions. Hmm.
    Definitely one of the toughest skills in good writing.
    Cheers!
    Sarah

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  22. After I read this, I spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint exactly what John Green was doing that made everything different. I read the first chapter of Katherines over and over again trying to figure out what it was. Then I ate dinner and came back. BODY LANGUAGE. That's what it was. He's not using body language. I shall now fix my writing. Thank you for the eye-opener.

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  23. Great post. Just looked over my own manuscript-in-progress and found lots of animate body parts that have got to go!

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  24. Great post, Nicole. Excuse me while I take my pursed lips, my larger-than-life eyes, and my itching fingers back to my manuscript for a major overhaul!

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  25. I had never thought of all this. Thanks for opening my eyes to something I'd never considered.

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