Show Don’t Tell and Point of View

 Show Don’t Tell and Point of View

I often come across these two issues – ‘show don’t tell’ and ‘point of view’ – in fiction writers’ technique, when helping fiction writers develop their writing, and when editing their manuscripts.

Two Common Errors in Fiction Writing

We often see the terms show don’t tell and point of view bandied around, but what do they mean?

What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean?

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Show don’t tell

This is one of the most common issues with writing technique, yet its meaning is elusive. Put simply, it means that as the writer, you need to strive to evoke feelings in readers with your writing rather than tell them how things are.

In the words of E.L. Doctorow, a New York City writer (b.1931) and winner of multiple awards, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Anton Chekhov (1860—1904), Russian author, dramaturge, and physician, (1860 – 1904), eloquently expresses the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”.

Examples of Telling and Showing

EXAMPLE 1

Here, the writer both tells and then shows in the same sentence that the character Jenna is excited.

ORIGINAL

He was back. Unable to contain her excitement [writer is telling], Jenna spun around the room, dancing and skipping like a young girl [writer is showing].

It’s unnecessary to tell the reader that she was ‘unable to contain her excitement’, and anyway, it becomes clear in the next phrase when the writer shows us through the words ‘spun around dancing and skipping like a young girl’.

REWRITE

He was back. Jenna spun around the room, dancing and skipping like a young girl.

EXAMPLE 2

Writers often tend to tell as well as show the reader in the same paragraph, as we saw in the example above. Below, the writer tells us that the character ‘realised’ something, whereas we want her to show us how the character was feeling in her moment of intense emotion.

ORIGINAL

It was only a kiss but I realised [writer is telling] we were made for each other. With that one kiss, the truth emerged from the shadows and everything became clear [writer is showing].

REWRITE

It was only a kiss but with that one kiss, the truth emerged from the shadows and everything was clear. We were made for each other.

EXAMPLE 3

ORIGINAL

He kisses me. I feel as if I have come home after a long journey and I now feel safe and familiar.

By removing the two instances of ‘I feel’, the writer can then simply show the reader how the character feels.

REWRITE

He kisses me. I have come home after a long journey to somewhere safe and familiar.

EXAMPLE 4

ORIGINAL

My husband Albert was sincere and compassionate. Regardless of how trivial an issue was, or how tired he may have felt, he was always genuine towards me.

REWRITE

Albert looked at me tenderly and caressed my cheek. “Darling, what’s wrong?” I knew he was exhausted; he’d been working eighteen-hour days for the past fortnight. But that was one of the reasons I loved Albert so much: no matter how tired he was, or whether my anxiety was caused by a broken nail before a photo shoot, or serious issues at work, he always had time for me and always responded to me kindly.

What does point of view (POV) mean?

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Narrative Point of View

Point of view, often abbreviated to POV, refers to the perspective (or point of view) from which a passage of writing is written. Some books just have one point of view; the entire book is written from the same POV. Two common POVs are:

1. Omniscient third person narrator POV. Omniscient means ‘all knowing’. It is as if the narrator is looking down and observing everything and is privy to the thoughts of every character in the book. It is like being a fly on the wall. The omniscient third person POV is the easiest to use in writing, and arguably the most common.

EXAMPLE

Colin drove the pick-up down to the lake edge, the tyres crunching over the stones. He had been compelled to visit the lake once more before he left this place forever. He switched off the ignition. The only sounds were the lapping of the water against the shore, and the occasional cry of a bird from the nearby trees. Colin checked his watch. May would be at home, waiting for him. If he was going to do it, he needed to leave now, before his courage failed him. Again.

Colin would have liked May to be at home waiting for him; indeed he had no reason to believe otherwise. May, however, was not at home, and she was not waiting for Colin anywhere. At the very moment Colin was checking his watch, May was halfway to her friend’s house – a friend that Colin didn’t even know existed – two states away. Colin didn’t know it yet, but he would never see May again.

You can see that the narrator knows the characters, and their thoughts. The narrator can be everywhere at the same time: down at the lake edge with Colin, and on a journey with May to another state. The narrator knows Colin has dark plans in mind, and also that May has picked up on his thoughts, that she has anticipated trouble and left Colin. The omniscient third person narrator is a very useful POV to use because the narrator knows everything.

2. First person POV. The first person narrator may be the singular ‘I’ narrator, or the plural ‘we’. In the example, we’ll use the ‘I’ narrator.

EXAMPLE

Using the same example as above, we’ll now narrate from Colin’s first person POV.

I drove the pick-up down to the lake edge, the tyres crunching over the stones. I’d been compelled to visit the lake once more before I left this place forever. I switched off the ignition. The only sounds were the lapping of the water against the shore, and the occasional cry of a bird from the nearby trees. I checked my watch. May would be at home, waiting for me. If I was going to do it, I needed to leave now, before my courage failed me. Again.

You can probably tell that the second paragraph will be trickier to write from the first person POV. Unlike the omniscient narrator, Colin cannot read May’s mind, and under the circumstances, he cannot know with certainty where she will be at a particular time. To resolve this, the writer has a few choices:

To continue writing from the first person POV, the writer will need to rewrite paragraph two.

I drove home, wondering if May would notice my nervousness. She was pretty perceptive. She always used to say she was intuitive. Just one of the things I couldn’t stand about her any more. Another way of showing she was superior to me. I drove up the driveway and noticed there were no lights on in the house. Strange. I drove into the garage. May’s car was not there. I parked my car and dialled May’s number. The call went to voicemail. May was always home when I got home. She always answered her phone on the first ring when it was me phoning her. She knew the consequences. I knew that she’d gone. If she knew what was good for her, she’d never come back. She’d saved me from myself. In a perverse way, I was grateful to her.

Some manuscripts contain several POVs: different chapters of the book are written from the perspective of different characters, to give a different view of events depending on who is narrating the chapter. When writing from various POVs, the writer needs to indicate the change in some way.

  • The book may be divided into different chapters, with each chapter written from a particular POV
  • There may be different POVs within the same chapter. These sections need to be clearly delineated – e.g. by inserting an extra space between paragraphs, or by using a separator symbol such as an asterisk – so that it is clear from whose perspective (POV) the narration is from.

While there’s no strict rule about how many POVs there can be in a manuscript, a general guideline is not to have too many as the book may become confusing to read. You don’t want to lose your reader among multiple POVs.

What I often see is writers mixing POVs in the same chapter. See the example below. The writer intends this chapter to be narrated from the POV of a character called Amber who narrates in the first person. The whole chapter therefore needs to be written from Amber’s first person POV.

I was driving through town when Mr Gallagher drove straight into my car. I could barely speak from shock. It had only been two days since he had done the same thing to my father. Was this deliberate? I wondered.

Mr Gallagher stopped, got out of his car, and inspected the damage. He had deliberately driven into Amber’s car, but he wanted to make it look as though it had been an accident.

Okay, see the problem? The chapter began from Amber’s POV, but in the next paragraph it switches to Mr Gallagher’s POV.

OPTION 1 – Let’s rewrite the second paragraph so that it remains from Amber’s POV.

Mr Gallagher stopped, got out of his car, and inspected the damage. I still couldn’t tell if he had deliberately driven into me. He seemed to be genuinely inspecting the damage and concerned at the inconvenience he had caused me, but I just couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that he was being insincere.

OPTION 2 – Rewrite the book from the POV of the omniscient third person narrator. This may be the best option when it becomes too hard to sustain the narrative from Amber’s first person POV:

They were driving through town when Mr Gallagher drove straight into Amber’s car. She could barely speak from shock. It had only been two days since he had done the same thing to her father. Was this deliberate? she wondered.

Mr Gallagher stopped, got out of his car, and inspected the damage. He had deliberately driven into Amber’s car, but he wanted to make it look like an accident.

The key is to be consistent with the POV and not to mix different POVs within the sections of your book. When you have chosen a POV, stick with it – whether you choose one, two, or multiple POVs.

 

I hope you have found this article helpful. Please contact me if there is any part of it you would like me to clarify.

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