Recently I read Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers by Mary Kole, and I cannot recommend it enough. In fact, I would even recommend it to those who aren’t writing kidlit. The sections on storytelling, character, and plot are helpful to any and all fiction writers, in my humble opinion.
One part that really stood out for me was the section on Show, Don’t Tell. I know what you’re thinking: DUH. But, Kole asks, do we know what that actually means? Well, of course, you might say. It means showing character through behavior. Instead of “she was a generous person,” (telling), you show the protagonist giving her last cookie to a hungry friend.
But then Kole brings up “physical telling.” We know we aren’t supposed to write “she was scared” because that would be telling. Instead, writers will often use body language and gesture such as “her heart beat wildly” or “her stomach lurched,” or “she bit her knuckles.” We think we showed instead of told. Except that these physical descriptions have become so cliché that they are pretty much the same as telling.
“Writers try to “show” with a character’s body all the time, but it often starts to read like a medical chart that details the status of her internal organs, or a dance number that chronicles what her limbs are doing.”
I agree. When I see it, I think it smacks of amateur writing.
And I am totally guilty of doing it!
As soon as I read this section of Kole’s book, I opened the manuscript I’m working on with my agent and did a search for the word “heart.” What I found was disturbing:
“Her heart jumped to her throat.”
“Her heart beat wildly.”
“Her heart thumped painfully in her chest.”
“Her heart dropped to her gut.”
“Her heart leaped.”
Good lord! Her heart was jump-jiving all over the place!
So I went through my manuscript and cut most of the physical tellings that involved my character’s heart and stomach. I also deleted all of the times the male protagonist bit his lip or furrowed his brow. (So cheesy!)
I tried to think how I could show their fear and excitement and concern in other ways. Kole suggests “interiority,” or describing the thoughts that are going around in the character’s head during times of high emotion. Instead of “she was scared” or “her heart was slam-dancing inside her chest like a 90’s kid in a mosh pit,” you write something like, “What if the mysterious man was a murderer? She imagined him pulling a knife from his jacket pocket and stabbing it through her rib cage. Her parents would come home to find her motionless body lying in a pool of blood.”
Interiority is a good option, especially for YA, which tends to explore the protagonist’s inner world. If you’re writing in first person or a close third, you can easily access the narrator’s thoughts (and you don’t have to put them in italics! — a pet peeve of mine!)
The other option is to trust your reader. A mysterious man in a trench coat is walking down the ally, and the main character runs behind a dumpster. Does the reader need to be told that the protagonist is scared or that her heart is beating a million times a minute? Do we even need to hear her thoughts about how the man might be a murderer? Maybe the fact that he is sketchy-looking and she’s hiding from him is enough. Readers aren’t stupid. They’ll understand that she’s afraid because of what the writer has showed them.
It’s not always that easy, of course. Maybe your character doesn’t do anything outwardly — doesn’t hide behind a dumpster — to show his thoughts and feelings. That’s why you feel the need to explain what’s going on inside. And that’s fine if you go the interiority route. But at least consider the other option of trusting that your reader will understand.
This is something I struggle with. I want to take my readers by the hand and walk them through my novel, pointing out everything they’re supposed to notice. I want to explain how the character feels at all times. But in most cases, the readers can see and understand these things for themselves, and they probably enjoy coming to such conclusions on their own.
In other words, show… and trust that your readers will understand.