How Star Trek Helps Us with Showing Rather than Telling

No, really, Captain. It's true.

No, really, Captain. It’s true.

While I’m running my tail off in NYC spreading the WANA love, Marcy offered to step in and help. She knew the two words that instantly would capture my heart. Star. Trek.

Take it away Marcy!

****

Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire

Marcy Kennedy, WANA Instructor Extraordinaire

You’ve heard the advice show, don’t tell until you can’t stand to hear it anymore. Yet all writers still seem to struggle with it. I think one of the reasons is we lack a clear way of understanding the difference between showing and telling. And that’s where Star Trek comes in to save the day.

Showing happens when we let the reader experience things for themselves, through the perspective of the characters. Jeff Gerke, editor-in-chief at Marcher Lord Press, explains showing in one simple question: Can the camera see it?

Screen Shot 2013-03-01 at 8.15.46 AM

While I love that way of looking at it, we’d have to really say, can the camera see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, taste it, or think it? (And that would be a strange camera.) Because of that, I prefer to think about showing as being in a Star Trek holodeck.

For those of you who aren’t nearly as nerdy as I am, a holodeck is a virtual reality room where users can act as a character in a story. You can play Jane Eyre or Twilight’s Bella or Lee Child’s Jack Reacher.

What the user experiences is what they can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. (Yes, in holodecks you can smell things and you can eat or drink “replicated” food. It’s a completely immersive experience.) To the holodeck user, the experience seems real in all respects. If you turn the safety off, you can even be injured or die.

When you’re faced with deciding whether something is showing or telling, ask yourself this question: If this were a holodeck program, would I be able to experience this?

Let’s take a couple examples and test them out. A straightforward one first.

Kate realized she’d locked her keys in the car.

Now, you’re standing in the holodeck. What do you experience?

…Nothing. We can’t see “realized.” We don’t know how she knows her keys are locked in the car. Anything we might visualize is something we’ve had to add because the author didn’t. There’s no picture here.

Here’s one possible showing version…

Kate yanked on the car door handle. The door didn’t budge, and her keys dangled from the ignition. “Dang it!”

You don’t have to tell us Kate realized her keys were locked inside her car because we’re right there with her. We see her figure it out.

Let’s take a more challenging example. This time you’re in the holodeck playing the character of Linda. (Remember that since you’re Linda, you can hear her thoughts as well as see, smell, hear, taste, and feel what she does.)

First the “telling” version.

Linda stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Though her head spun from the height, she was amazed by the grandeur of it and felt a sense of excitement. Finally she’d taken a big step in overcoming her fear of heights.

What do you physically experience in the holodeck? Only the Grand Canyon. If you don’t know what the Grand Canyon looks like, you can’t even see that. None of the rest can appear around you. None of it is her thoughts. They’re all abstractions. What does being amazed by the grandeur look like? What does excitement feel like? What does her fear of heights feel like?

If we’re in the holodeck, it’s going to play out something more like this…

Linda gripped the damp metal railing that ringed the horseshoe-shaped walkway over the Grand Canyon. Her vision blurred, and she drew in a deep breath and puffed it out the way the instructor taught her in Lamaze class. If it worked for childbirth, it should work to keep her from passing out now. She forced her gaze down to the glass floor. Thick bands of rust red and tan alternated their way down canyon walls that looked as if they’d been chiseled by a giant sculptor. The shaking in her legs faded. She had to get a picture to take back to her kids.

You can see what’s around Linda, and you sense her amazement at the size of the canyon, as well as feel her fear. Emotionally you move with her from fear to wonder to excitement as she thinks about sharing it with her children. We hear it in her thoughts. This is the trick to good internal dialogue. It’s what your character is thinking at that moment, the way they would think it. It’s like you’ve planted a listening device into their brain and can play their thoughts on a speaker.

So next time you’re not sure whether you’re showing or telling, ask yourself “what would I experience in a holodeck?” That’s how you should write it if you want to show rather than tell.

Do you struggle with showing and telling? What’s your biggest hurdle?

On Saturday, July 20, I’m teaching a 90-minute webinar called “Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction” that will help you understand the difference between showing and telling, provide you with guidelines for when to show AND when to tell, and give you practical editing tools for spotting and fixing telling in your writing. Even if you can’t attend the live event, the webinar will be recorded and sent to all registrants. The webinar normally costs $45, but you can get 15% off by entering the discount code MarcyShowTell. Click here to register.

P.S. I’ve put together something special for everyone reading this post today. I’m offering a free PDF called “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Hiring a Freelance Editor.” Click here to sign up for your copy.

About Marcy:

Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy) is a speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance editor and teaches classes on craft and social media through WANA International. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at www.marcykennedy.com.

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  1. #1 by moxeyns on July 11, 2013 - 9:11 am

    That was very helpful – thank you! Best explanation of Show vs Tell I’ve ever seen.

  2. #2 by MonaKarel on July 11, 2013 - 9:12 am

    Ah the nerd connection, a Pavlovian response to two simple words: Star Trek. We know now that the special effects were cheesy but do we really care? How many of us have been affected by Gene Roddenberry’s vision, and believe everyone should understand the reference to “Prime Directive?”

  3. #3 by Elke Feuer on July 11, 2013 - 9:14 am

    Love the reference to the Star Trek holodeck! A very interesting way to remember how to show and not tell.

  4. #4 by Jennifer Cole on July 11, 2013 - 9:16 am

    It wasn’t until I had someone critique my second novel and until I bought the Emotion Thesaurus as well as follow the blog of the two wonderful ladies who created the Thesaurus that I got a chance to understand this concept. I think its when we experience what our character feels that makes a book really good. When our heart thumps in our chest or we cry as we feel their pain, that’s what makes it a good book. I’ve read a lot of good books but the ones in memory are the ones that you get emotionally involved with.

    Just as an example: in my opinion, I think that’s why romances are so popular with some readers because we get engaged with two people’s involvement with each other.

    My only query would be this: is it possible to do too much ‘showing’ in a book? There have been times where I’ve read a book and a whole paragraph has been dedicated to showing us, for example, it rained. But the rain had nothing to do with the story! I’d rather read, ‘It rained’ than prose dedicated to showing rain. Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2013 14:04:21 +0000 To: jlynncole@hotmail.com

    • #5 by Parker J on July 11, 2013 - 9:20 am

      And I know the screen shot that episode is from, “The Immunity Syndrome”! I’m totally a Star Trek: TOS fanatic!

    • #6 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 10:29 am

      It is definitely possible to do too much showing. (Part of what I do in the webinar is help you understand when to show and when to tell.) Not everything needs to be shown, and everything that is shown needs to be shown for a purpose.

  5. #7 by Jennifer Rose on July 11, 2013 - 9:19 am

    Fabulous article! The explanation was really clear and helpful. I feel like I can apply this to my own editing process and to the watching of Star Trek.🙂

  6. #8 by purpleandrew on July 11, 2013 - 9:20 am

    You have no idea how much this post has helped me. Finally, someone has SHOWN me how show and tell works rather than TELL ME. I have 4 books on the go, three of them in a trilogy and i know i have to go back through them all to fix this, but now i can use your holodeck analogy, i have GOT IT
    People in writers groups etc beat the heck out of me with a big stick about show and tell, but none of them show me how to fix it, it is all literal and wordy, not VISUAL.
    thank you so much, you have given me a huge amount of work to do, and i shall do it page by page for all 4 books and close on half a million words between them. It will be a JOY not a drone to do this and make my writing zing rather than zung.
    keep writing, for you know you have to…….
    andrew marsh
    aka purpleandrew

  7. #9 by claudenougat on July 11, 2013 - 9:30 am

    Congrats, Marcy, this is a very effective way of conveying the concept! The Star Trek holodeck – yes, it’s not just a matter of what the camera sees but how your characters feel inside…A holo-camera!

    And yes, I think Jennifer Cole’s comment is spot on: there are moments when “show don’t tell” should be mixed with “tell don’t show” to speed up the action and cut out what is not relevant to the plot.

    • #10 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 10:31 am

      I’m glad you liked the post. Holodecks seemed to me to be a good analogy because you are a character in the story when you’re in a holodeck.

      And I do agree. Showing and telling is about balance. You actually need both to make a book work🙂

  8. #11 by Katy Sozaeva on July 11, 2013 - 9:31 am

    This is EXCELLENT advice! I’m bookmarking it and will use it as a reference for authors for whom I edit in the future. Thanks for expressing that SO much better than I could!

  9. #12 by Shea Ford on July 11, 2013 - 9:41 am

    The holodeck is an excellent way to explain what is so difficult for writer to apply to their writing. Love it! Thanks for the great post!😀

  10. #13 by Damian Trasler on July 11, 2013 - 10:00 am

    My problem is the first person POV I’ve chosen for my current WIP. I’ve been aware of a lot of telling going on, but I’m not sure how I’ll sort that. For now it’s a case of getting the first draft done and reviewing my transgressions when I have a complete story to smack into shape. I’ll keep the holodeck in mind and hailing frequencies open….

  11. #14 by Morgan on July 11, 2013 - 10:11 am

    Thank you for this INVALUABLE insight… When I proofread my nearly completed novel for the umpteenth time, I am definitely going to make sure my reader’s are on the halodeck!!
    By the way…isn’t Star Trek magnificent!!

  12. #15 by Michelle Collins (@EmCeeCollins) on July 11, 2013 - 10:11 am

    For the love of Wil Wheaton! This post is probably the best and most practical way to look at Showing/Telling that I’ve read. Thanks for making it so clear. I’ve completely had a “Oh! Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” moment.
    I feel like this is going to be helpful to me. I look forward to getting home from my day job to apply this process to my WIP. I’m having the same issue that Damian mentioned above. I’m writing in first person POV and I feel myself telling a lot. Sometimes though, the MC has just got to tell the reader what is going on. Hopefully this thought process will help me turn some of that into showing.
    Thanks!

    • #16 by Parker J on July 11, 2013 - 10:13 am

      Shaka…his eyes open!

    • #17 by Stacey Haggard Brewer on July 11, 2013 - 10:27 am

      (WordPress has no like button for comments. Am I the only one who sees a problem with that?)
      Temba, his arms wide.

  13. #18 by Lanette Kauten on July 11, 2013 - 10:16 am

    Excellent comparison. What a great way of “showing” writers how to show. I’m going to tweet this post.

  14. #19 by projectechoshadow on July 11, 2013 - 10:17 am

    Is out just my imagination or is every member of WANA amazing? This os interesting stuff I think I’ve done a pretty good job of deciding when to sure and when to tell, the times when I tell are mostly to go beyond mere showing and not simply to lag behind it, at least that was the intent. We’ll see if the editing crew agree.

  15. #20 by Stacey Haggard Brewer on July 11, 2013 - 10:23 am

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post! It’s so easy to just tell the reader what you want them know, but the challenge of showing them is so worth the effort.

    (And I’m trying to get my husband to build me a holodeck out of our spare room. He’s resistant. Something about the cost of replicators or something equally ridiculous…)

    • #21 by Shawn M on July 11, 2013 - 7:31 pm

      Yes, why they are AMAZING. Thank you for pointing that out!

  16. #22 by jwtroemner on July 11, 2013 - 10:50 am

    I love this way of looking at it!

  17. #23 by alexlaybourne on July 11, 2013 - 11:13 am

  18. #24 by Jae on July 11, 2013 - 11:22 am

    Great post! I’m definitely going to reblog!

  19. #25 by Jae on July 11, 2013 - 11:23 am

    Reblogged this on Lit and Scribbles with Jae and commented:
    Remember how we were talking about showing vs. telling on Monday? Well here’s another great blog post that explains the idea marvelously—especially if you’re any kind of Star Trek geek.

  20. #26 by Stephanie Noel on July 11, 2013 - 11:46 am

    This geek will definitely steal that holodeck concept. It’s awesome!

  21. #27 by David Erickson on July 11, 2013 - 12:49 pm

    “what would I experience in a holodeck?” What awesome way to say it. I’ll have that in my mind as I write from this day forward. Thanks.

  22. #28 by Katie Cross on July 11, 2013 - 1:30 pm

    I love it! I’m going to use that from now on. Holodeck. Epic. Great examples by the way, you made your point very clear with them!

  23. #29 by cpbialois on July 11, 2013 - 2:25 pm

    Reblogged this on The BiaLog.

  24. #30 by sharonhughson on July 11, 2013 - 2:27 pm

    Uh, Marcy, in my world it’s the COOL kids that know what a holodeck is and does. The nerd is the person who can tell you how to make one:)
    Thanks for a unique way to envision when I’m telling instead of showing.
    (Also, since I already subscribe to your newsletter, I couldn’t sign up to get the free PDF *sad face*)

    • #31 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 2:59 pm

      Use the contact form on my website to send me your email address, and I’ll email it to you🙂

  25. #32 by Cassie Merko on July 11, 2013 - 3:29 pm

    Hi Kristen, *Where* is that July 20th workshop being held and is it a daytime or an evening class? I enjoy your blog and find it informative and inspiring.

    Cassie Merko (An aspiring writer)

    • #33 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 6:15 pm

      It’s an online webinar, so it doesn’t matter where you live, and it runs from 2:00-3:30 pm Eastern. If you can’t make it at that time, a recording is sent out to all registrants.

  26. #34 by malindalou on July 11, 2013 - 3:45 pm

    Showing instead of telling is helpful in all forms of writing, but can be difficult to master. Thank you for this great analogy on how to do it. I’ll take all the inspiration and help I can get!

  27. #35 by Maryann Miller (@maryannwrites) on July 11, 2013 - 3:58 pm

    I love the advice of “can the camera see it” and glad you added the other senses. Too often we rely on one or two over the others.

    • #36 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 6:18 pm

      Because we use sight most in our lives, I think we tend to default to that sense in our fictions, but if we want our readers to really be there with our characters, we need to think about all of them🙂

  28. #37 by Widdershins on July 11, 2013 - 4:27 pm

    What a wonderful metaphor!

  29. #38 by Karen McFarland on July 11, 2013 - 4:28 pm

    What an awesome post by our most excellent editor and instructor! I wouldn’t be caught dead on that Plexiglas walkway! lol. But you took me right there anyway. I’ve got to watch you Marcy! You’re sneaky girl. Now you’ve made me feel self conscience about what I just sent you. *sigh* 🙂

    • #39 by Marcy Kennedy on July 11, 2013 - 6:17 pm

      No need to feel self-conscious. I’m here to help. And remember, we’ll work on adding the polish together!

  30. #40 by L.S. Engler on July 11, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    Narrative as holodeck. That’s bloody brilliant! I’m definitely going to keep that perspective in mind next time I’m in the editing room.

  31. #41 by worldsbeforethedoor on July 11, 2013 - 5:15 pm

    Great article. I’ve been really looking for new ways to explain this since I started teaching a creative writing class. Very helpful!

  32. #42 by Whisky Sage on July 11, 2013 - 5:56 pm

    A very helpful article. Thank you, and well done.

  33. #43 by Elle Carter Neal on July 11, 2013 - 8:55 pm

    Great technique! And very nerdily cool, too. Thanks, Marcy.

  34. #44 by danielocceno on July 11, 2013 - 9:12 pm

    I was going to tell you my comment, but I decided to show it instead. I am happy because I do try to watch what I write, if the reader can see what I am trying to point out. I have Bernie the Saint Bernard with my current Young Adult Sports Fantasy.

  35. #45 by jaysutcliffe81 on July 12, 2013 - 2:01 am

    really great post I enjoyed reading it!!

  36. #46 by Kassandra Lamb on July 12, 2013 - 11:50 am

    Marcy, I always love how clear your explanations are, but this holodeck concept is downright brilliant!! Yet another post I’ve bookmarked in my Writing Craft file. Thanks.

    And live long and prosper!🙂

  37. #47 by joannayla on July 12, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    I LOVE Star Trek, so this is perfect for me. I write in my memoir about having a crush on Spock when my Mom was having a nervous breakdowns and my Dad was in Viet Nam. I think I’ll go see if I can see, hear, feel, smell it from the holodeck.
    Thanks!
    joannaoftheforest

  38. #48 by Cheweyyy on July 12, 2013 - 9:35 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Actions are always far more powerful than words.Very nice post.
    Regards,
    Cheweyyy

  39. #49 by Kate is on July 12, 2013 - 10:06 pm

    This particular problem flew at me last night when I was reading a book. “She felt a tear falling down her cheek.” I put the book down knowing my hand was going to be held all the way through rather than being pushing into the story.

  40. #50 by Diana Beebe on July 15, 2013 - 1:16 pm

    Thanks, Marcy! You know how much I like to tell stuff.🙂 I love the reminders to show more.

  41. #51 by Jami Gold on July 15, 2013 - 4:00 pm

    Love this technique, Marcy! The holodeck is a brilliant way to think of it.

    *bites tongue to keep from nitpicking that the Skywalk is not actually over the Grand Canyon*😉

  42. #52 by emmaburcart on July 16, 2013 - 5:54 am

    Great advice, as usual. I’m working on finding a balance, because I think I actually show too much and don’t really tell at all. But as a reader, I like a book that has some narration too. I’d love to hear your advice on that sometime…🙂

  43. #53 by Eden Royce on July 18, 2013 - 6:26 pm

    Reblogged this on The Dark Geisha and commented:
    Having trouble with show versus tell in your writing? Allow Star Trek to help…

  44. #54 by KM Fawcett on July 30, 2013 - 4:39 pm

    Great post! I reblogged this on http://www.AttackingThePage.wordpress.com and commented:
    Want to be able to show and not tell in your writing? Use the Holodeck! The following article on showing vs telling has been swiped from Kristen Lamb’s blog.

  45. #55 by schillingklaus on November 12, 2014 - 3:20 am

    No, I will not succumb to the show-don’t-tell ideology of Lubbock and James; but I will keep on deploying intrusive authorial diegesis, no matter what.

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