21 November 2012

Four Levels of Showing and Telling

I loved participating at the Florida Writers Conference this past October. There were so many sessions I wanted to attend, but only one of me!

I would like to share with you one session conducted by Author and Editor, Chris Roerden. This was an amazing session, not because it dealt with showing and telling, but she describes what happens at each of the four levels of showing and telling while describing your characters’ emotions.

In your writing, you can share your character emotions in four ways or what she refers to as four levels. Here they are as described by Ms. Roerden:

1. Telling about emotion

Ms. Roerden didn't actually say this, but I will. This is the most boring way in communicating to your reader the emotions of your characters. You would only do this if you want your story to read like a sports commentator giving you the rundown on how a team responds to losing a game. The coach is not happy! The defensive coordinator is apparently displeased. Tebow is crying now. Wow, what a game!

Really? Can you get any more detached than this? I am not fully serious here. There are times when this is okay, especially when you want to pick up the pace.

2. Telling via description

This is better. At least it's much more refined than the first level. This is where you use the eight senses to tell how your character is feeling by way of describing what they see, hear, taste, smell...etc. Little details help build the description and put your reader where they want to be, "in the scene". Consider this, from Dean Koonzt's From The Corner of His Eye.

Junior shoved Naomi so hard that she was almost lifted off her feet. Her eyes flared wide, and a half-chewed wad of apricot fell from her gaping mouth. She crashed backward into the weak section of railing. 
For an instant, Junior thought the railing might hold, but the pickets splintered, the handrail cracked, and Naomi pitched backward off the view deck, in a clatter of rotting wood. She was so surprised that she didn’t begin to scream until she must have been a third of the way through her long fall. 
Junior didn’t hear her hit bottom, but the abrupt cessation of the scream confirmed impact.

It's as if you are standing there watching this happen, isn't it? I like this a lot. It's not that I want an entire story told in such a manner. We all need a break from the excitement, so we turn the page and listen to the commentator again. Wow, our guy there must have been really mad at Naomi to have shoved her off the deck like that, huh? And did you see that? She looked surprised.

3. Showing via character perception

You can show your character perceptions with the use of metaphors and symbolisms.

Her voice made me cringe like the sound of a cat sliding down a chalkboard. 
Her mouth vacuumed up the last morsels on her plate. 

Now, her mouth isn't a vacuum, but with the use of her mouth in this manner, you can actually see her slumped over the plate, moving along the flat surface, and sucking up the crumbs as if it were a vacuum cleaner. That's descriptive considering you've only used a few words. Be careful with this as you may start to see your writing become somewhat animated, and that's not good, unless you're writing for the sake of comedy.

4. Showing via visceral feelings

According to Roerden, you don't want to do this very often. Too much of a good thing can wear your readers down. This is a technique where you convey the feelings of your characters through their primal responses to survival.

Her stomach froze and the sweat poured from her temples. The pounding of her heart reached her ears and pulsed like an air pump.

These are internal observations of your characters and are not things they witness externally. The feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize your child has gone missing is called a visceral response.

Don't do too much of this to your readers. They'll start to think you're a sadistic psycho.

Anyway, this hour-long session with Ms. Roerden was superb. I enjoyed her passion for what she does and I hope to attend more of her sessions in the future.


  1. Sounds like a great session with some really good tips.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Wow, what a great post. Thanks for sharing. I've never heard it broken down like that and it makes a lot of sense. :)

  3. Replies
    1. Haha! I had to go there. But Tebow should be glowing over his old school's win over FSU on Saturday, huh? Awesome game, though.

  4. I love the commentators haha. It made me realize that I'm doing that a little bit in my latest project. Oh well, that's what revisions are for :)

    1. Got to love revisions and the whole polishing process. I hate to write, but I love to rewrite (could rewrite until it never gets published, that's me!)

  5. What an insightful post! As a sports fan, I can relate to the bland, jargon filled traps that particular method may present. Guess it's a matter of knowing where and when to use either of the four ways to convey exactly what the writer aims to achieve in a particular passage.

    Congratulations to your son on the successful completion of his degree/graduation--way to go!

    1. Thank you, Alan! You're exactly right. Ms. Roerden mentioned exactly that, knowing when to use each is the key.

  6. Excellent post, as always, Diane! Thanks for passing along the advice. Scribbling notes as we speak :)

  7. Very good tips! Thanks for passing it along.

    Tebow crying, admittedly, is hilarious.

  8. Good tips! Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Thanks Randi and William. Yea, had to give Tebow his props. :D


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