If you're a writer, it's a fair bet you've heard this one:
"Show, don't tell."
For many writers, this can be a challenging lesson. For others, it comes fairly naturally. What many don't realize, however, is that whether or not you realize it, you are always showing something.
For me, one of the tricks to showing vs. telling comes with dialogue. It's easier to think of body language when we think about people actually communicating. Before I describe any action or statement with an adverb -- "He said angrily" -- I consider what sort of body language will communicate anger instead:
- "He said with a scowl"
- "He clenched his jaw"
- "He shook his fist"
- And etc.
While it's easy to remember body language when characters are actively communicating, we may not always think about it when they are not. However, as we rarely have a character who does nothing but sit in a corner and stare into space, we know that characters are always doing something. We have to remember, therefore, that whatever they are doing, it shows us something.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
It's cliche, but it's true. Talk is cheap; actions often relay our true motivations and intent.
When it comes to storytelling, I'm a fan of saying "Just because you say something doesn't make it true". Quite often I see new and amateur writers in romance making this mistake: they give readers claims such as:
- No one had ever made her feel this way before.
- There was just something about him.
- She was always such a klutz!
- He'd never been good at finding the right words.
When you as the author make a claim like this, you have to back it up with action. If you tell me a character is a klutz and yet never show her stumbling or spilling a plate of food or tripping over a stair, I'm not going to believe you. If you tell me the love interest has some unnamed quality which sets him apart from everyone else and yet he never does anything to distinguish this quality, I'm going to call it lazy writing (and another cliche...don't tell me "something", tell me what!).
I've run into this problem recently with my NaNoWriMo lead character, Sadira. I peppered her inner monologue with the phrase "She just couldn't find the words", or some variant thereof, throughout the first half of the manuscript. The problem was that whenever Sadira got to talking, she turned out to be extremely eloquent...which made me a liar. You can't create a situation, feeling, personality, or anything else simply by stating it to be what you want it to be. If your character's actions run contrary to what you've claimed, it doesn't matter what you've said. The actions are where the real truth lies.
Actions are always there
Your characters are never "off the clock". Even in scenes where they may not be the focus or may not be present, if you describe them doing something, then guess what? They're doing something. And whatever it is they're doing, it communicates something to the readers.
A smart writer learns to use this to their advantage. Some even recognize that if their character is doing something, it could belie the character's natural inclination, and reveal something of that character's true intentions or personality. If you've got a gal sitting in the background of a shouting match between two of your leads, whatever she's doing back there shows us what she's thinking or feeling...even if we don't intend it to.
Another thing that shows a character's true nature is their habits. You don't want to give your character a habit that shows readers something you don't intend to communicate. A character biting her lip shows thoughtfulness or distraction; biting nails can show concentration or anxiety. Quirky characters ought to have a quirky habit: a non-smoker who keeps a cigarette behind his ear or a charming, witty rogue flipping a coin and catching it. If you're showing us that a character has a habit like this, you're communicating something about their personality. Be in control of this situation and be sure your characterization is consistent throughout.
You are always showing
If your characters are doing something, they are showing something. In romance, one of my pet peeves is a character who shows themselves to be manipulative and self-centered, when the author wants me to believe they are likeable and heroic.
This is one of my main beefs with 50 Shades of Grey. Ana Steele claims she's willing to be open-minded to the world of Dom/sub relationships and BDSM...and then spends the rest of the book lamenting Christian Grey's lifestyle, wishing he were different, and hoping he will change. The amount of time spent on BDSM scenes compared to the amount of time spent on Ana looking for ways to "normalize" Christian leaves me with a lot of frustration and disgust for the lead character, who, in my opinion, is not nearly as "cute" or as "winning" as the author tells me she is...because everything she does points to the exact opposite. She may claim that she's interested in Christian's lifestyle or willing to learn more about it to please him, but her every action shows me exactly the opposite.
On a related note, the amount of time she spends biting her lip shows me she is either A) willfully disregarding Christian's demands of her (no, I don't believe she's doing it on purpose because half the time she doesn't realize it), or B) suffering some kind of oral disorder which causes her to inhale her lip every time Christian isn't looking.
At least Twilight has this right: when Bella claims to be a klutz, she does actually do klutzy things. The author shows us, rather than simply dumping the info in a sentence or two and leaving it at that.
Remember your characters are always showing us something. Be in control of what they show us, or else you allow them to tie you up in inconsistencies or confusion.
The most important thing to remember is that what your characters show us will always be more convincing and leave more of an impression than what you or they only tell us. A thoughtful writer goes a bit beyond this simple knowledge and uses showing to their advantage: remember that your characters are essentially always "onstage", even if they aren't in the spotlight, and use their actions to show us layers of your story. You don't ever have to tell you readers a character is a perfectionist if you simply show them consistently behaving like one. This is a stronger means of character development with your reader, and a surefire way to be sure you're living up to that good old rule, "show, don't tell."