Monday, August 6, 2012

Show v. Tell Is A Pain...(See What I Did There?)

My back hurts. Apparently, lifting my one year old/ combined with being almost thirty/ combined with too much reading in awkward positions has kinked up my lower back.

Sitting, right now, writing to you people...hurts. My baby is still sleeping, and I don't know what to do, because I know in a few minutes, he's gonna wake up and cry, and someone is going to have to pick him up out of his crib, and I'm the only one here tall enough to do it.

So, while my mind is on the subject, let's talk pain.

Pain is one of those empty words that mean more to the writer of the word, then the reader of the word. I've read stories where the writer uses the word pain as a short cut, or a crutch.

 I've noticed that it takes more than just that one mention of a word to gain a reader's sympathy.

Take this example from FTCM.

Leo moved far quicker than I expected and backhanded me. I saw a flash of white, then my whole body toppled to the side. My hands tied behind me couldn’t stop the fall, so I gashed the side of my head against the freezing concrete. 

No pain yet, just action.  This is still working, IMO. We're far enough into the story, that I've developed sympathy toward Larissa, so I'm halfway there. But then I do this... Are there sentences like this in your WIPs?

Searing pain lanced across my face. I swore.

When I wrote it, I thought that sentence was beautiful. So powerful, right?  I'm not quite so sure now. I think there's a better way to say it. 

To be clear, I think it's okay to say "Pain verbed through my (insert area of body in pain here ) once or twice. To 'tell' the pain is fine, sometimes. However just saying, "Oh look, pain," doesn't make the reader feel it.

I'm not a fan of the whole Show v. Tell argument. I think there are times and places that it's better to tell. It's quicker. Sometimes it just sounds better. It's for the writer to decide which is best for the pages.

However PAIN is a different story. In my opinion, pain must be shown, most of the time. It doesn't seem to work as well if you tell it.

Pain is a powerful tool to give a character likability. Think of the character House. Pain used in the right place gives justification for his jerk-faced nature. However, the more you talk about pain, the less impact it has. You can't say," It hurts, It hurts, It hurts", without turning readers sympathy into annoyance that the character won't stop whining.

One of my work in progress is about this dying girl who gets healed by a faith healer. She's in pain...all the time. There's only so many ways you can say it without losing sympathy, and starting to sound whiny. Here's an example of how I talk around the pain that I think works pretty well.

“There’s got to be something else we can do,” Mom said, as she closed her door just a little too hard. I winced, both at her words, and at the movement. I ignored her as best as I could for the drive home and concentrated instead on the feel of my wool skirt as it brushed against my knees. I ran my fingers over the cool leather binding of the backseat, appreciating the rise of each stitch. I had an itch on my hairline, but it hurt too much to raise my hand, so I closed my eyes and tried to will the itch to go away. 

I think the trick to using pain, like most things in writing, is to write around the pain, and let the reader do the work imagining it. That same trick works with writing romance, with writing grief, and with writing attraction. Don't try to force it, or come at it too strong. Mention the cause, and let the reader come up with the consequences.

Put the reader to work, because once you let the story leave your hard drive, it's no longer yours. It becomes the readers story. As they read it, the effort they make to attach themselves to the character will be what makes the story linger in their lives.

I guess that's the point of the show v. tell debate. 

Best of luck to you!

photo credit: <a href="">Shandi-lee</a> via <a href="">photo pin</a> <a href="">cc</a


  1. Bad backs run in my family. I've had my own issues, so I totally sympathize. I now own a wide variety of back pillows for all of my chairs, and have finally learned to sleep on my side with a pillow between my knees. Does icing your back help? I've found that to help better than pain meds on some occasions.

    Just keep telling yourself it's a learning experience. And thanks for the tips - indeed, you can only say 'it hurts' so many times in a page. I'll be sure to keep it in mind for my current WIP.

  2. So sorry for your pain. It's so hard, especially w. kids. Is anyone else able to help? Once I resorted to the kids taking naps on the floor (on a blanky that I could pull around if necessary - see no lifting :) 'Whatever works' has become the basic tenent of my parenting.

    I agree about showing pain so that the reader has to fill it in with their own painful memories - much more powerful. I love how you broke it down.

  3. Great post, Sheena. I'm sorry to hear about your back. I'm feeling the need to offer lots of helpful bits of advice, since I've been there, but I'll probably refrain--I'm sure you've had loads thrown at you since it happened.

    OK, so I can't TOTALLY refrain. That would go against my nature...Ice packs. So close to a miracle, they often get mistaken for each other. You've got to lay on one past the point of numbness though, or it doesn't work. Lie on an ice pack until it's the same temperature as your body. (Just make sure you're taking common sense precautions about frostbite.)

  4. I use the "pain ripped through her body" concept way too often. I know I'll be more cautious about that from now on. Great post Sheena! Hope your back feels better soon!

  5. Kids mess up your back. Mine gave me sciatica. It might have started when I was pregnant but I'm pretty sure I sealed the deal by always carrying them on my left side. I have no helpful advice.

    On to the show vs. tell: I've gotten into this debate on a message board and almost everyone thought I was crazy, but I'll say it here anyway. I think show vs. tell is about depth of POV. A lot of people write something like "pain lanced across my face" and feel like that's showing because it's ACTIVE. I don't know why they think those two are equivalent but it seems to be ridiculously common. (And yes, I use that construction way too much.)

    I love the paragraph you gave because it's really rooted in the POV character's observation of sensory details. I think that's often what makes the difference in show vs. tell—it's how deeply the reader is drawn into the POV character's experience. People don't experience strong verb phrases. They experience the details.

  6. Excellent Post!

    I agree that sometimes tell is better. It is important to show when you want the audience to experience what the MC is experiencing, and I agree with you that pain is usually something you want the reader to feel, so it is best to show.

    Beautiful examples, Sheena. And I hope you are feeling better.


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