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Apr 6, 2020

How Sandra Gerth Helped Me Perfect the Art of Showing Versus Telling

By Sierra Archer.

If you have been writing for even a small amount of time I am willing to bet that you have come across the concept of ‘showing versus telling’. It’s undeniably an important thing to consider when writing any kind of story. But why?
Well, let’s take a look at an example.

Which of these two sentences is more engaging to read?’
 Harry was angry because Niall ate his taco.
 or
Niall raised the taco to his mouth and the world slowed. Heat boiled from the pit of Harry's stomach, radiating through his entire being. His vision turned red as Niall took his first bite.
 “Is that,” his voice shook, “my taco?”
 Niall turned, his eyes locking with Harrys. The color drained from his face, “No?” Bits of lettuce tumbled from his shaking lips.
It’s the second one, right? That’s because it goes deeper into Harry's mind, like you are feeling his anger alongside him, where as the first one is as if we were watching the scene from a distance. It separates us from the character and the scene.
The book that best taught me the art of showing versus telling was Sandra Gerth’s “Show, Don’t Tell.” Gerth went into depth about what showing and telling are, how to spot when you are telling, the importance of showing and so much more that we don’t have time to get into today.
However, the most important things I learned from her were spotting telling ‘red flags’, using showing to express emotion, and when you actually want to use telling.
My example above is the most obvious example of telling. However there are more subtle ways where telling sneaks into your work like an uninvited guest. One form of telling is adverbs. They can not only weaken a sentence but sometimes use vague language to tell us about a reaction rather than show us (i.e., using “angrily” rather than describing her body language). Another sneaky form of telling is filter words (I also call them realizations) such as “saw,” “heard,” “felt,” “watched,” etc. They pull us away from the scene and the character, and as Gerth puts it
“The problem is that filter words tell your readers what the character perceives or thinks instead of letting them experience it directly.”
Readers experiencing these emotions directly is what makes reading so powerful. Getting deep into a character's mind is what helps make readers develop a deeper emotional connection with the character.
Showing a character's emotion is a great way to help build that connection. But how do you do this? Gerth describes the first rule as avoiding naming emotions (like I did in the first example.) Instead, rely on body language and expressions and draw on the physical reactions you and those around you have to certain emotions. Pull from real life to inspire your writing. Dialogue is also a great way to express a character's emotion. But you don’t have to cut out all emotion words, as Gerth explains
“Sometimes, [you can use] an emotion as the subject of a sentence and pair it with a strong verb.”
But warns us to use it sparingly.
An example of this technique would be;
 Terror overwhelmed Kanyes mind, making it hard for him to concentrate.
            However, the most helpful tip Gerth provided me when it comes to mastering the art of telling is to rely on the five senses. Think about what a person would notice in certain situations, especially if they’re emotional. If they’re terrified are they really going to notice the pretty flowers surrounding the beast about to rip out their throats? Our senses do become heightened when we are emotional, but think about which ones would make the most sense. As Gerth points out, in moments of terror, smells and sounds often get amplified. And we might even get tunnel vision as we desperately search for a way out.
Now  we know a bit more about how and when to use showing over telling. But when should we  use telling in creative writing?
Gerth explains some instances where telling is necessary. The first one is the unimportant details. Going into detail on the small matters that don’t hold a lot of weight in the plot can  screw with the pacing, and you’ll lose the interest of the readers. Telling can help with this by summing up the more mundane moments as well as by helping smooth transitions between scenes. Pacing is one of the more important reasons for telling. As I said before, showing too much will slow things down. So some body language and facial expressions can be summed up in a short two words. Gerth gives the example of a smile. Instead of going into detail how the characters lips quirked or pulled, and overly describing the subtle movements of the face, you can just say they smiled.
Another form of pacing is when you are trying to build suspense. Keeping the sentences short and to the point adds to the tension in a scene, especially for fight scenes, where you do not want to go into deep detail about every movement the characters make. It gets boring to read and sucks all the suspense out of the scene. And finally, Gerth explains that telling is okay in the first draft. Because after all, first drafts are just you telling yourself the story.
So there you have it. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of what showing is and why we need it in our stories. It may be a complex, sometimes daunting, idea, especially picking out when you are telling and how to effectively turn it into showing,. But if you ever need a helping hand, Sandra Gerth is always there to help.


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About the Author: Sierra Archer
I was born and raised in Portland, Or. I studied at PSU and took a term abroad at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. I fell in love with the country and plan on finding my way back there in the future. I have loved storytelling since I was a child. I am an artist and a writer working toward a career in animation. I am in the editing stage of my first novel and plan on starting my next one soon. I use my writing and art as a way to bring to life the stories that fill my mind. I want to be an animator/storyboard artist to bring to life stories that will inspire others in the way that movies and film have inspired me.

If you want to check out my art you, can do so on my Instagram, or follow me on Twitter to follow my writing life.