Sep 06 2009

Don’t Tell the Reader What the Character Isn’t Doing

Published by at 8:21 am under Writing Articles

“John almost slapped his wife.”

It rarely matters what the character is not doing, or is almost doing, or whatever. Positive actions– what the character is doing or has done– are almost always more powerful.

One of the problems is that telling us what almost happened is usually dull narratorial exposition. If what the character almost does is really that important, please at least show it with an action rather than narrate it. (Show, don’t tell!) For example, instead of “Mary almost shot Jamal,” it would be much more effective to show her hand wavering as she holds the gun on Jamal. First, it’s more visceral and easier to visualize. Second, it’s very awkward to switch from a character almost doing something to actually doing it.  That’s a problem because saying that someone almost does something essentially takes the action off the table, which damages the suspense.  In contrast, when Mary’s shakily holding the gun against Jamal, we don’t know whether she will shoot. It gives us more to wonder about.

Another problem is that telling us what doesn’t happen is rarely necessary. If it is truly notable that the character does not do something, the reader will notice that the action doesn’t happen whether or not you explicitly say it. For example, here’s an author explicitly telling us that a husband doesn’t respond to a serious accusation.

“You’ve been cheating on me,” she said.

He didn’t say anything.

“He didn’t say anything” is wasted space that could have been used to develop his emotional state and personality. Check out these alternatives.

“You’ve been cheating on me,” she said.

He buttered his toast. OR He studied his shoes. OR He shrugged.

In each of these cases, the reader will still notice that the husband doesn’t say anything. But the positive action adds emotional depth. The character that butters his toast is eerily nonchalant and will probably come off as callous. The guy that studies his shoes is understandably embarrassed. If the author just leaves it at “he didn’t say anything,” we don’t pick up any of these emotional cues.

13 responses so far

13 Responses to “Don’t Tell the Reader What the Character Isn’t Doing”

  1. A. N. Onymouson 06 Sep 2009 at 8:39 am

    Or you could just say, you know, ‘show, don’t tell’.

  2. B. Macon 06 Sep 2009 at 8:58 am

    Yeah, that’s definitely part of it.

  3. A. N. Onymouson 06 Sep 2009 at 9:58 am

    Actually, this is more a part of Show, Don’t Tell.

  4. Marissaon 06 Sep 2009 at 4:17 pm

    However, ‘he almost slapped his wife’ is perfectly fine, in my opinion.

    Instead of ‘he was angry’, for example. That would be telling. The fact that he has to resist the urge to slap her is showing.

    Oftentimes, what the character is doing isn’t nearly as interesting as what they aren’t doing. I care much less about him buttering his toast than the fact that he really was tempted to slap her.

    This is more a matter of the author’s personal preference than solid fact. “He didn’t say anything” is an awkward sentence in itself. It would, as you said, sound better as “he silently buttered his toast”. That gives the ‘didn’t answer’ vibe just as well.

    If the action that they didn’t do is strong enough, I think they should most definitely tell you what it is.

  5. HUsheron 06 Sep 2009 at 11:57 pm

    And now B.Mac, I must officially declare that I love you.
    Just kidding.
    But this post is a Godsend. I randomly flicked onto superheronation to check if there was a new post and saw that. It perfectly highlighted a problem with my own writing that I hadn’t been able to identify. I knew there was *something* wrong, I just didn’t know what it was. I have a nasty habit of writing lines like this.
    Kudos for the writing article.

  6. B. Macon 07 Sep 2009 at 10:11 am

    “Oftentimes, what the character is doing isn’t nearly as interesting as what they aren’t doing.” In those cases, I think that readers will be smart enough to pick up on what the character isn’t doing without the author explicitly saying so. (Like the character that doesn’t speak after being accused of adultery). If the author has to point out what the character isn’t doing, it probably isn’t that important.

    Husher said “I have a nasty habit of writing lines like this. Kudos for the writing article.” Thanks. I have a similar habit.

  7. Marissaon 07 Sep 2009 at 12:09 pm

    Well how would you make the readers assume that he almost slapped his wife? That seems like a dramatic reaction, so they’d assume he’s mad, or upset at the very least, but not that he genuinely almost slapped her. Leaving it for the reader to assume leaves them with a wide variety of possible assumptions. Since no reader thinks the same, there will be a variety of assumptions, and th eones that don’t fit with what you were going for will be jarred when their assumption doesn’t fit.

    In the middle of action, it’d be stupid to be like, “it’s round… It’s brown… You bounce it…” Instead of just saying “a basketball” and moving on. That bogs down the action with unnecessary details. (Unless you’re mostly referring to non-action parts, at which point I aapologize, your action-y example confused me.)

  8. Holliequon 07 Sep 2009 at 2:21 pm

    I think a better writing of the sentence “John almost slapped his wife” would be something like “John was tempted to slap his wife” or something along those lines. That tells the audience that the character is actually refraining from action, which is in itself a type of action. Er, so to speak.

    But by and large, I agree with what B. Mac has said. I do this a lot, so I found it really helpful. 😀

  9. Marissaon 07 Sep 2009 at 3:01 pm

    That would be an alternative, sure, but the fact that he almost slapped her but didn’t shows that he must have restrained somehow. A lot of husbands are tempted to slap their wives (though that’s a different subject matter altogether), but the fact that he actually almost did is a stronger show of the struggle, in my opinion.

    Then again, we’re straying from the main point. About 75% of the time, this rule applies completely, so kudos to B. Mac on that.

  10. Beccaon 07 Sep 2009 at 4:46 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly, B. Mac. Replying to an accusation of adultery with a shrug speaks volumes. That action is much more telling than “he didn’t say anything” is.

  11. B. Macon 07 Sep 2009 at 7:54 pm

    Rather than something like “He almost slapped his wife,” I think it’d be noticeably more effective to show what he’s doing with his hands. (IE: Describe himself as he restrains himself or show the wavering hands rather than leaving the restraint implicit).

    1. It creates a stronger visual.

    2. When in doubt, showing something rather than telling usually creates a more immersive and interesting story. (In this case, showing us the restraint and emotional struggle).

    3. More suspense. If the author says “he almost slapped his wife,” it’s pretty obvious that the next few sentences won’t contain something like “and then he did slap his wife.” Saying something like “he almost did x” also implies “he will not do x soon.” In contrast, showing the hands as he struggles to restrain himself will not imply that. If you leave the option on the table, the scene will probably be more suspenseful.

  12. Marissaon 07 Sep 2009 at 8:34 pm

    If he later does slap his wife, you’re 100% correct about it ruining the suspense, and the fact that you should give signs.

    However, showing wavering hands could mean dismay, fear, anger, many other things. Wavering hands might mean he’s resisting reaching into his pocket for something, for example. If he tensed up, for example, that could also show that he might want to slap her, but it could also mean he’s resisting the flight reflex. If he doesn’t actually slap her, I’m totally standing behind my statement that you should state it flat-out. Describing physical symptoms of almost slapping her is too vague for something that’s not actually going to happen. If you describe the symptoms, people think he’s gonna end up slapping her, but if you state that he almost did, but then move on to whatever else is going on, the reader won’t feel mislead.

  13. WritingNinjaon 06 Nov 2012 at 7:56 pm

    I love this article. I’ve been trying to improve my “showing” in writing. I didn’t realize that writing “he didn’t say anything” is telling.

    I have a difficult time trying to figure out what is telling and what is showing.

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