Pitch Wars Revision Advice: Show vs. Tell, Part 1 — Put Your Character in the Scene!!
Less than 6 weeks until Pitch Wars subs open (trust me, as a mentor I’m just as anxious about this as you are!) so I’m back this week with more revision advice.
“Show, don’t tell” is a piece of writing advice we see all the time, but I find that there’s a lack of clarity on A) what this means, and B) how exactly to execute on it.
The way I think about writing, there’s actually a few different facets to “showing” vs. telling. The part that seems to get the most attention in other craft advice focuses on the POV character and their immediate sensorial experience. You’re not supposed to tell the reader that their sister looks sad, or that the cake is ruined, you have to show us. The sister’s tear-stained cheeks and trembling lip. The smear of crumbs and frosting down the side of the counter where the cake fell.
There’s good advice to be found here (although I tend to think it’s less clear cut than “show = good, tell = bad”), but today I want to talk about a whole other kind of show vs. tell. It basically boils down to this: put your character in the scene where things are happening.
I’ll give you an example from my book, You’re Next (without spoiling anything). Towards the end of the book, there is an incident in which someone very close to Flora is seriously hurt. This incident is the catalyst for Flora’s “All is Lost” moment, where her failure to protect the people she loves has her truly considering dropping the murder investigation.
But during my own Pitch Wars experience in 2017, my mentor Amy Trueblood made a suggestion that was so brilliant and so obvious that I’m still smacking my forehead for not realizing it myself. In the original draft, this incident happened off the page. Flora is off investigating the case, and she comes home to find out the news. And my mentor was like, “what if this very important event that totally shapes Flora’s emotional arc for the rest of the story happened (and hear me out here) while Flora was actually present to witness it.” A concept!!
I made the change, kicking myself all the while, and now Flora is there when this horrific accident happens. She walks away unscathed while someone she loves is badly hurt. And that simple fix heightens the emotional resonance for the end of the book.
So, in short, here’s my advice: PUT YOUR CHARACTER IN THE DAMN SCENE. Is there an important event that fundamentally shapes the plot, stakes, or main character’s emotional arc? I guarantee it will be a million times more powerful if the readers can see it happen with their own eyes. If they can be in your main character’s POV, feeling what they feel, in that exact moment. I know this sounds super obvious, but we’re all guilty of it. Clearly, I’ve done it. And so many of the manuscripts I read have the same exact issue.
This can also be applied to worldbuilding. Particularly in fantasy, I have a low tolerance for long bouts of explanation when it comes to magic systems, cultures, the politics of this new world, etc…especially at the very beginning of a book. Obviously that has its place–sometimes, you just need to get the reader the information that they need as quickly as possible. But this same rule of “put the character in the damn scene!” can be applied here as well.
Instead of explaining your magic system–it’s rules, consequences, and limits–can you put me in a scene where I can see it for myself, firsthand? Instead of explaining the long history of war between the two nations at the center of your epic fantasy, can you show me a scene where I can see its effects?
And you can get creative here! Take that war story, for instance. Maybe you need your reader to know about the tension and tragic history between the cultures. And maybe you need us to know that the effects of those past wars are still deeply felt, and that that tension is still lingering under the surface. When I say show us that in scene, that doesn’t have to mean a flashback to the battlefield, where we can watch the gore & bloodshed as it happens. It could mean your main character goes to visit their father, a veteran who was badly traumatized or wounded. It could be a very quiet, domestic scene where your character prepares their dad’s dinner, because Dad’s injuries have left him struggling to take care of himself. And maybe he’s too proud to ask for help, and in this same scene we now get a peek into the conflict & tension simmering under the surface of this child/parent relationship as well.
Or maybe you have a special weapon in your book, one that has very specific rules for how it works that you need the reader to understand. You could do a long explanation of those rules…or maybe you could show us the character who must wield the weapon cleaning it. Preparing for battle. And as you do that, you can weave in some of the explanation of those rules, but you can also show us how nervous the character is for tomorrow’s fight by the way their hands shake ever so slightly as they run the rag over the grip, or the careful, too-precise movements they make as they take the thing apart and clean each piece. So we get some of the rules, but it’s all tied in with emotion, tension, and stakes as well.
Because that’s the real lesson that underpins so much of my advice around craft: you only get so many words in a book, and so ideally each word should be serving multiple purposes at once. When you spend a few thousand of them on back story or worldbuilding explanation, that’s usually the only thing that is going on with those words. By tying those explanations to a specific moment in time, a concrete physical reality where things are happening in the present moment, and we’re seeing it all from the character’s POV…now we’re not only conveying a lot more information in the same number of words, but as a reader I am much more likely to get invested in your worldbuilding if it’s emotionally tied to a character and their perspective.
I have more thoughts on how to approach “show, don’t tell” from a sentence level, so I’ll be back soon with more on that! Good luck to all my Pitch Wars preppers out there–can’t wait to see some of your stories in my submission inbox.
Kylie Schachte is a graduate from Sarah Lawrence College and an active member of the Pitch Wars online community as both an alum & mentor. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, cat, and giant dog. YOU’RE NEXT is her first book.
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