Three Types of Telling You Must Erase to Create an Intimate POV

You’ve just created a new character and are excited to share his point of view with readers. He’s witty, charming, flawed, and about to embark on the adventure of his life. You’re desperate to bring readers up close and personal with him. If you don’t, you’re worried they won’t love him as much as you do. Believe it or not, the key to accomplishing this is showing.

You’ve no doubt heard “show, don’t tell” before. Sounds like solid advice, but what does it truly mean? For the sake of this article, I will separate telling into three categories: telling in description, telling in thoughts, and telling in emotions. Once you eradicate telling in these areas, readers will feel much closer to your character and your book will be one step nearer a masterpiece.3_Types_of_Telling_You_Must_Erase_to_Create_an_Intimate_POV

Not All Telling Is Evil

Before we jump in, please realize that telling isn’t an enemy writers must avoid like gold-obsessed dragons or One Rings. Telling is simply summarizing. You can’t write your entire novel without summarizing; otherwise your book would double in size and slow to an unbearable crawl. The examples in this article are only suggestions, not rules you must obey. Your book should contain showing and telling, not exclusively one or the other.

The balance between telling and showing is hard to master. We have no rules that dictate when to tell, but there are a few guidelines. When you introduce a character’s POV, make sure to show rather than tell his thoughts and emotions to give readers a sense of his voice.

Showing not only manifests your character’s personality, it also controls the pacing. To decelerate and anchor readers inside a scene, use showing to describe your character’s surroundings, thoughts, and emotions. If you’re writing an action scene, insert a little more telling than usual so readers aren’t bogged down by all the details.

Now that you understand telling isn’t always bad, let’s begin.

1. Telling in Description

Suppose a section of your story flows something like this:

Jane saw Matthew glance over his shoulder, a look of fear on his face. He slipped into the alley ahead. She hurried after him. Confusion fogged her mind. She wondered why he was running and what he was afraid of. She scanned from wall to wall. She didn’t see Matthew. She crossed her arms, considering the impossibility of his disappearance.

A cat leapt out of a nearby trash can, sending the can crashing to the ground. Jane was surprised and watched the cat scamper out of the alley.

Can you detect the awkwardness of these paragraphs? Sure, you’ve communicated what’s happening: Matthew is running away and Jane is following him.

But that’s about it, folks. You’re not inside Jane’s mind. You can’t see through her eyes or feel her confusion. On top of that, only a vague sentence or two has been dedicated to Jane’s thoughts about the situation. This excerpt is rife with telling, and it’s murdering readers’ experience.

Oftentimes, saw, felt, and similar words indicate telling and should be cut. In general, telling involves mentioning your character’s name or a pronoun before revealing what she saw, felt, or thought. To eliminate this telling, remove the pronoun or character name. This saves space and increases intimacy. Readers will understand your character is witnessing a scene if it is being described.

“Look of fear” is also telling, because you aren’t specifying Matthew’s expression. In essence, you’re summarizing. To remedy it, imagine how your character would display fear. Does his lip quiver? Do his eyes dart from side to side?

Matthew glanced over his shoulder, his face a sickly white. He slipped into the alley ahead.

Jane hurried after him. Confusion fogged her mind. She wondered why he was running and what he was afraid of. She scanned from wall to wall. No Matthew. Jane crossed her arms, considering the impossibility of his disappearance.

A cat leapt out of a nearby trash can, sending the can crashing to the ground. Jane was surprised. The cat scampered out of the ally, its claws scraping the stone.

Can you see through Jane’s eyes? Perhaps not yet, so let’s move on to the next form of telling.

2. Telling in Thoughts    

Words like wondered, pondered, considered, etc. fail to relay your character’s direct thoughts and shoves readers to the fringe of your character’s mind.  

Scanning our story in progress, we find telling in these sentences:

She wondered why he was running and what he was afraid of. Jane crossed her arms, considering the impossibility of his disappearance.

Contrast it with this revision, which omits the telling words:

Matthew glanced over his shoulder, his face a sickly white. He slipped into the alley ahead.

Jane hurried after him. Why was he running? It made no sense. He shouldn’t be afraid of her. She scanned from wall to wall. No Matthew. Jane crossed her arms. He couldn’t disappear like that. It was impossible.

A cat leapt out of a nearby trash can, sending the can crashing to the ground. Jane was surprised. The cat scampered out of the ally, its claws scraping the stone.

We’ve dived deep into Jane’s mind; readers now have an unrestricted view of her train of thought and can acquire a better sense of her emotions.

3. Telling in Emotions

In the narrative above, we told the audience Jane was surprised but didn’t elaborate on what it felt like. This sort of telling is tricky to replace, because it usually involves a combination of thoughts, body language, dialogue, and internal sensations. Too much of one element and readers will notice. Too many internal thoughts will seclude your character from the world. Too much dialogue and no thoughts will estrange readers from your character.  All four are necessary to convey emotion in a scene. If you’re struggling with balance, The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a fantastic resource for learning to incorporate emotion.

We’ll try applying this to our story draft:

A cat leapt out of a nearby trash can, sending the can crashing to the ground. Jane started, clenching her fists so tight her nails dug into her palms. The cat scampered out of the alley, its claws scraping the stone. Goosebumps raced across her skin like a charge of ants. Everyone was afraid today.

Putting It All Together

We’ve finally destroyed all the telling! Here’s our improved passage:

Matthew glanced over his shoulder, his face a sickly white. He slipped into the alley ahead.

Jane hurried after him. Why was he running? It made no sense. He shouldn’t be afraid of her. She scanned from wall to wall. No Matthew. Jane crossed her arms. He couldn’t disappear like that. It was impossible.

A cat leapt out of a nearby trash can, sending the can crashing to the ground. Jane started, clenching her fists so tight her nails dug into her palms. The cat scampered out of the alley, its claws scraping the stone. Goosebumps raced across her skin like a charge of ants. Everyone was afraid today.

Compare this with the original. Do you see the difference? With a little imagination, you can visualize Matthew’s face fading to white and feel Jane’s nails digging into her palms as the cat rushes out of the alley.

Telling drags readers outside your character’s mind, stifling their ability to feel and see with your character. Not all telling is evil, but if you’re telling more than showing, you’re hindering readers from experiencing your character’s escapades. If you reduce telling and add details, readers will be captured by your book and your prose will spring back to life.

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Gabrielle Pollack currently resides with her family and many cats amidst a small wood she wishes was Narnia. Her interests are varied, and when she isn’t writing or studying, she enjoys karate, archery, introverting, and hanging out on the Kingdom Pen forum. She relishes the cool wind that rushes in before a thunderstorm, the scent of fresh rain, black clouds, and in summary, all things storm. As a lighthearted INFP, she loves horses, spring, strawberries, and sitting on the roof of her house.
She fell in love with stories many years ago and immersed herself in epic books like The Kingdom Series and The Peleg Chronicles, living the adventures and loving the characters. It took her a while to realize she could write epic stories herself, but once she did, she was a lost cause. She never quite recovered her sanity and often rants about good storytelling to innocent bystanders. Gabrielle has written two books since, and has a plethora of other ideas swirling inside her brain, waiting to turn into people and worlds. She desires to glorify God through her books, short stories, and blog, and looks forward to learning more about her trade.
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Comments

  1. GABBY. This gave me delighted shivers as I read it. Why is it that every time a new article comes out, it becomes my new favourite? 🙂 Seriously, though – you’ve outdone yourself on this one. You took a concept that most people simply talk about, and broke it down enough to make it understandable and able to be incorporated into the stories of a beginner. Again, brilliant job!

  2. 😀 I don’t know how many times one person can explode from gratefulness but I think I’m breaking the record. 🙂 Thank you Cindy!

  3. Thank you for telling us that not all telling is bad and showing us how to eliminate it. 😉 I struggle most with over-showing. I have to figure out how to juggle my showing with telling. Can’t wait to see more of your articles!

  4. YES. ALL OF THIS. Thanks so much for a very comprehensive article, Gabrielle. *two thumbs up* Very helpful.

  5. Great overview.

  6. Thanks Daeus and Kate! *Feels privileged to receive not one but two thumbs up. 😀 *

  7. Susie Simpson says:

    Fabulous article about showing versus telling. I am excited to read more of your work; send me a link to get your books!

  8. This was amazing! <33 Very well written and so helpful.

  9. Kaitlin Armstrong says:

    Awesome Gabs! Love this article. I may be slightly biased but your articles are amazing! Thanks for the writing tips.

  10. This has probably been one of the most personally helpful articles we’ve published on the site for me since this is an issue I’m currently trying to focus on in my writing. Loved the practical emphasis here via the examples!

  11. I’ve been wondering how to implement correct showing vs. telling in my POVs. Thank you Gabrielle for the wonderful insight!

  12. Well… shoot.
    I watched a recorded lecture long ago about intimate POV, and it drastically increased the engaging nature of my writing. Since then, I’ve been trying super hard to put what exactly I learned into words so that I could write it as a blog post.
    It appears Gabrielle beat me to it.
    Regardless of my own missed opportunity, this was super fantastic and a great resource for me to keep in mind for myself, and to share with others. Thanks for putting my thoughts together for me! 😉

    • Mwahahaha *pets cat and twirls mustache* That’s what I’m here for, to be psychic and document all your thoughts. 🙂 Glad ya liked it. 🙂

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