Write Tip: Intimate POV and Show v. Tell

I dislike the “show v. tell” term because it’s often bandied about with no further explanation. For the longest time, this flummoxed me. Where was I telling? How could I show? But as an editor, I’ve gotten a better understanding, coming across situations where just a few word changes would make a world of difference.

For example, which feels more immediate and in the moment:

I heard a bowstring twang just as Roger crashed into me.

A bowstring twanged as Roger crashed into me.

Any time you use “I saw,” “I thought,” “I felt” etc. you are taking us out of the intimacy of seeing the world through your characters eyes into the world where the character is standing back and examining it, not acting.  Let us see through her eyes. Active action happening right now is more powerful.”Felt” is on a list of passive verbs that should be avoided as much as possible. Phrases like “made me feel” or “a feeling came over me” may be wordier but they work better because they create the feeling in readers that the POV character is experiencing the emotion right now. It’s more intimate. We are inside their head, not hearing them narrate a story after the fact. Even better are descriptive phrases.I felt angry at the sight of him.At the sight of him, my breaths shortened and my body tensed. I clamped my lips together, fighting the urge to speak my mind.No mention of “anger” and yet the second makes it clear what emotions the POV character is feeling, right?”Was” and “Were” are burdensome as well. Although sometimes unavoidable in description and exposition, look for every opportunity to replace them with more colorful verbs. For example:His face was still calm.His face remained calm.Seeing her approach, I began to back away.Seeing her approaching, I backed away.

The same thing but one is more immediate. It may be subtle but over the course of the novel or story little bits add up. It sometimes helps to keep a list of passive verbs and vet your manuscript in a later draft, looking for places where they can be replaced easily with better wording.  This way you are not so caught up in trying to avoid them that it stymies getting words on the page. After all, it’s easier to fix what already exists than to create it in the first place. At least, most of the time that’s been my experience.

In a great post on her blog about this topic, agent Natalie Lakosil suggests: “My favorite way to think about it is to imagine that your book is the patient, and your reader is the doctor who needs to figure out what is wrong with them. When a patient walks in, they don’t say: ‘I have appendicitis.’ They’re going to say, ‘My side hurts and I keep throwing up!'”

To translate this into your fiction, she offers the following examples:

Don’t write: She was sad. 
Do write: She felt as if the sun would never shine again. It was a crushing, heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Oh no, she used “she felt,” but she recognizes this is sometimes a problem and offers this alternative to avoid it:A heavy, crushing feeling settled over her; tears welled in her eyes and she couldn’t breathe. Etc.etc.

The context of the story will make much clear. Is the character sad? Scared? Desperate? Angry? Nervous? Horny? All of the above? (Unlike, I know.) The reader will see by how the character acts in the scene as it plays out which is the right answer and that makes the story more powerful in many ways.Sometimes, telling is natural. As Lakosil points out with this example: “I advise to keep it real. Your patient isn’t going to walk in and say, ‘I believe I have an acute hyperactive diaphragm’; they’re going to say, ‘I have the hiccups!'”

Telling not only weakens the dramatic impact of the story and the intimacy with your narrator for readers, but it can also make a story feel predictable by foreshadowing too much, instead of keeping readers guessing if they were right.

Lakosil writes: “Readers like to feel smart; they like to be able to say, ‘I knew it!’ without feeling like they were told or led to that conclusion, but rather because they’re just that awesome at reading into clues.”

If you tell the reader something your character doesn’t know, the reader will feel disconnected. Frustration comes when the character fails to pick up on it and act.

Here’s Lakosil’s solution: “Think backwards. You’re the doctor; what do you need your patient to tell you in order to figure out what’s wrong with them? What logical order do you need to hear these symptoms in to figure it out?” She also warns: “Try to think through if what you’re leading with, or what you’re developing plot-wise, is answering or revealing things that don’t need to be answered or revealed yet. And also check if what you’re revealing is a why or a what.”

Motive and events are not always the same. If a person is dead that tells you little about how they died or why in many cases. Bullet holes to the brain are obvious, poison is not. And we know nothing yet of who killed them and why. Skilled mystery writers employ this powerfully. Revealing the why too early makes the reader ahead of the narrator and the story feel predictable and slow. The narrator becomes an idiot who is unsympathetic. Why can’t she see this already, the dolt?

So whys and whats should be paired so that they work together in a logical order that carries the plot forward to its denouement without ruining the anticipation and surprise.

So avoiding telling is really a matter of creating and  nurturing intimacy between story and reader. Finding ways to keep the reader and narrators close so that the reader experiences events unfolding like real time, immediately, right now. These are several examples of things you can pinpoint which detract from that. I hope it helps you unravel a bit of the mystery behind the “Show v. Tell” criticism that’s commonly thrown around. For another helpful posts on this topic: see The Six Degrees Of Show V. Tell http://victoriamixon.com/2010/12/01/the-6-degrees-of-show-vs-tell-rated-by-quality/.

Happy writing!

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress,  forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Broadening The Toolbox Through Cross Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa & Opportunity

I’ve often called Mike Resnick a friend and mentor. And recently as he was honored at ChiCon as Guest Of Honor, I’ve gone back and revisited some of the works of his which have most inspired me. I was not a longstanding Resnick fan. In fact, I barely knew who he was when I read a review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction comparing various speculative fiction stories which made use of other cultures. Discovering Mike’s passion for Africa and success with stories inspired by it, I looked him up and emailed him about my passion for Africa. The next thing I knew he’d sent me files of all of the stories and I began to read. Then we opened a dialogue that launched me into my Resnick discovery. What I admire so much about Mike’s use of African characters and culture is that unlike so many Westerners he seems to find value in their dedication to traditions and their passion for their traditional ways, while still recognizing some of the weaknesses and failings which have resulted. He’s done a remarkable job of writing characters who feel authentic without making them look silly or backward but leaving it up to us to decide who deserves admiration and who doesn’t. In his trilogy of Chronicles Of A Distant WorldParadise, Inferno and Purgatory–he used African history and political events as the inspiration for planetary colonization, getting inside the minds of alien races as well as human colonists and, in the process, wound up predicting some events which happened in real African history in the cultures he used for inspiration. I think, like me, Resnick has seen the value of observing a culture without making snap judgements based on our own presuppositions and he has sought to present those cultures in a respectful light despite any obvious failings.

[My brief reviews of several such Resnick books can be found as follows: Kirinyaga, Inferno, Purgatory, Ivory.]

Resnick is not the only author to dabble in African storytelling, of course, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor has used her culture in her writings extensively and Alan Dean Fosters’s Into The Out Of makes great use of African cultures as well. Writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Jason Sanford have used their own crosscultural experiences with Asian nations in their writing, and Lucius Shepard is well known for his stories of Latin American culture. I myself just had a short story published that employed US-Mexico border culture. And I think these kinds of explorations are rich fodder and rife with the opportunity to break away from traditional storylines and tropes. One of the great advantages for writers of world travels is the opportunity to get inside the heads of those who see the world very differently from how we see it ourselves, study their traditions, customs, ideas, etc. and find inspiration for writing more complex and interesting and nuanced tales. You don’t have to agree with a point of view to get inside the heads of those who hold it. You do have to respect their right to have their own beliefs though, I think. And perhaps that’s where the challenge lies today, particularly here in the United States where ideological political differences more often divide and destroy respect rather than encourage it. It’s hard to accept those with whom we strongly degree, it seems. And media and pundits work hard to keep it that way.

But for me, an upper middle class doctor’s kid, spending time in African cities and tribal villages and Brazilian cities and slums, etc. has made me see the world as a much bigger place than I ever could have imagined before those experiences. It’s widened my box and my lens and allowed me to ask questions I wasn’t accustomed to asking and even consider options which might not have occurred to me before 2000 when I started my world travels. I find some of the customs and attitudes I encounter in these places to be frustrating and misinformed, yes, but I also find some of them inspiring and worthwhile. There are many things of value we could learn from each other if we just took the time. For example, the unity of African community is something that would benefit us greatly in the West. I blog about it here and how much I think we could learn from their sense of oneness and unity. Their focus on conversation and hanging out represents another lost opportunity. Africans love to spend their evenings not in front of the TV, but gathering with neighbors and friends to discuss news, weather, life, work, the universe and everything in between. Even when they do watch television or movies, they invite people to join them. I rarely saw them sitting around alone doing such activity.  Life is a communal experience. Africans seem to find joy in the little things and lack of things which we take for granted as well. It was a stunning reminder to me that those who have often lose appreciation for their condition and that those who are accutely aware of their lack often have a freedom we lack.

This is why what Apex and Lavie Tidhar have done with their Book of World SF anthologies is so important. There are other ways to see the world through the specfic lens, and by taking the time to see them, we can learn a lot about ourselves which we’d never expected and might not see any other way. We can also discover possibilities for viewing the world which never occurred to us. People operating with different experiences, assumptions and histories tend to view the same situations through different eyes. And there are few things better for teaching us how to write diverse and real characters with truly different points of view than seeing the world through the eyes of real people with such varied points of view. Admittedly, what we see isn’t always going to be pleasant. But then the nihilistic trends of the media and much fiction have left behind the happy ending fairy tales of our youth anyway. Those open to the possibilities of positives will find them, while those focused primarily on negatives will not. It’s not even that one should want to or have to write characters of different cultures as much as getting inside the heads of people who push us outside our stereotypes and go-to ideas so that we can write something different than we might have before. Resnick, Okorafor, Foster, and others have done this quite well, which is why, looking back at their work now, I am reminded how much difference it can make for writers to take the time to experience such things for themselves.

When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?

I’m grateful that writers I admire have taken the time to make use of those lessons and changes from their own lives. I only hope that I and others can do a better job of it in the future, for there are great stories that deserve to be told, waiting to be told, waiting to be discovered. And there’s a far richer tapestry than we often remember with which we can tell those stories. In a genre where it’s often said “there are no new ideas, only new ways of telling them,” it’s hard to pass up any chance to broaden one’s storytelling horizons and toolbox, isn’t it? I know it has been for Mike Resnick, Alan Dean Foster, Nnedi Okorafor and for me.

For what it’s worth…

Accra, Ghana, West Africa, Summer 2000 with Eyram Gbewonyo

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: Thoughts On Choosing Point Of View

There are many decisions one makes when writing fiction. One of the most important is the choice of POV character and whether it’s first person or third. Often, when dealing with multiple POV characters, the choice is based on who has the most to lose or gain in a particular scene. But sometimes other factors can be useful.  

In The Returning, my forthcoming sequel to The Worker Prince, I found it advantageous to tell a scene from the POV of an antagonist despite the fact the focus of the scene was a subplot of the romance between the protagonist and another character. In doing so, I was able to up the tension beyond the drama of the moment. While Davi and Tela are having a fight and their relationship is jeopardized, the scene becomes more powerful because Davi’s rival, bent on killing him in revenge for past slights, is stalking them during the scene. Thus, not only is their relationship in danger, but their very lives. It wound up becoming one of my favorite scenes because of that.

A further advantage was that several subplots are advanced in the process–the Davi-Tela love story, the Bordox revenge plot, and the main story about attacks on Davi’s Vertullian people are all advanced in this scene. Having Davi’s rival, whose hatred for Davi seethes throughout the book, see Davi in a humiliating fight with his girlfriend also serves to make Davi’s situation more sympathetic. It’s bad enough he’s messing up his relationship, it’s bad enough some of that conflict is based on misunderstanding each other, but now his life’s in danger and he’s been humiliated in front of Bordox. It just adds layers of dynamics to the scene which up the pace, the tension, and the stakes all at the same time. When you add to that the fact that this encounter was coincidence–Bordox was there for other reasons and just stumbles upon them–it’s all the more dramatic.

Below is the scene from my third draft so you can see how it plays out. Remember: Bordox is working for a group trying to unseat the government and reenslave the Vertullians, ancient enemies. He’s Davi’s Academy rival and his family are the rivals of Davi’s for the leadership of the Borali Alliance. Tela is Davi’s former trainee, fiancee and a fellow Vertullian pilot. The romance that started in The Worker Prince is facing new pressures and their relationship is strained because of it. 

As you read, consider the POV choice. How does it work for you? Would you have chosen differently? What are the questions you ask when deciding which POV to use in scenes? Feel free to discuss it in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts on choosing POV.


Bordox fought his every instinct as he stepped off the shuttle into the starport landing bay on Legon. His mission required stealth yet he stiffened at having to sneak around a place he’d once walked freely—admired and respected. Here he was, less than a year later, hiding in shadows like a wanted man. And there was only one person to blame: Davi Rhii!

He made his way through the pedestrian corridors and deliberately avoided areas frequented by pilots and maintenance crews with the hopes he’d be less likely to be recognized. The datacard in his pocket pressed against his leg with every step. He just needed to get to the flight data booths and insert it. The program it contained would do the rest, drawing out the desired intel from the systems, and he’d be on his way again.

“What’s keeping you so quiet?”

He knew that voice, stopping to listen as it came from around the corner ahead of him.

“Nothing. I’m fine.” A woman’s voice answered. One he didn’t recognize. He heard footsteps approaching and shrunk back into a shadowed doorway. “Just let me check the shuttle maintenance records for Aron and we’ll be on our way.”

“I know you, Tela. Something’s upsetting you.”

Rhii! Bordox gritted his teeth. His old enemy, the idiot who’d ruined his life, was coming toward him. What was he doing here this time of night? Last he’d heard Davi was a squadron commander. Military pilots didn’t casually walk around this side of the starport.

Davi and the woman appeared around the corner and stopped as Davi jumped into her path so they were face to face. The woman was medium height, shorter than Davi, with long brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. Her pleasing curves stiffened in anger as Davi blocked her way. Both wore Borali Alliance flight uniforms with rank insignia on their shoulders and blasters holstered at their sides. Seeing Davi in uniform just launched him into a rage. Rhii had the career Bordox deserved.

“I know you, Tela,” Davi said. “Why won’t you talk to me about it?”

“Because it won’t make any difference. We’ve tried before.”

She stepped around him and continued down the corridor as he hurried after her.

“So it’s about me then? What did I do?”

The woman, Tela, sighed. “I am not some delicate damsel in distress, Davi Rhii. I’m a fully qualified Borali officer, just like you.”

Davi looked confused. “Of course you are. What are you talking about?”

She stopped and whirled to face him, arms on her hips. Her eyes narrowed with annoyance. “You had me taken out of your squadron rotation. You got me in a lighter flight duty assignment. I keep finding myself not chosen for any risky missions—”

“There haven’t exactly been a lot of risky missions lately, and your reassignment was required by military rules. Couples can’t fly together.”

Tela growled. “A convenient excuse.”

“It’s true. I can show you the memo the commander sent asking me to sign the transfer paperwork.”

“You don’t get it! I am not going to be the girl who sits at home and pines after you. I want to do my duty like anyone else. I don’t want to be protected.”

“I’m not protecting you.”

“Yes you are!”

She whirled and started up the corridor toward Bordox again. He slipped further back into the shadows, sliding his hood up over his head as he enjoyed the show. They were so distracted with each other he doubted they’d even notice him. Bordox began to relax from his rage a bit as he watched Davi Rhii get put in his place by a woman. The only thing better would be the day he did it himself. Like instinct, his hand felt for the blaster at his hip, closing around the handle, he squeezed it. All he had to do was draw and shoot and Rhii would be dead. They would never see it coming, totally taken by surprise. His fist clenched and unclenched around the handle as he fought the urge. He’d blow his mission. But he might never get a chance like this. The feel of the cold steel of the blaster against his palm got his adrenaline pumping.

“Okay, maybe I didn’t argue.” Davi smiled as if that alone would charm her. Bordox wanted to step out and wipe that smarmy grin off his face with a fist but he swallowed, silent and hard, and stayed frozen in place. Or maybe I should blast it off. “Look, I love you, okay? Guilty! It’s my instinct to want to protect you.”

“We fought side by side in the Resistance. Why can’t we do that now?”

“Well, there’s not really any enemies at the moment for one. And we were just getting into things then. Now we’re together.”

“So I’m supposed to sit at home and worry about you while you get to relax and know I’m safe? That’s fair.”

Davi grinned and shrugged. “I’d feel good about it.”

Tela groaned and punched him hard in the arm. “Well, I don’t.” She turned and marched on down and through the door into the landing bay as Davi raced to catch her.

Bordox paused a moment, tempted to follow, but shook it off, remembering his mission and slid on down the corridor the way they’d come. There was more at stake. He had to remember that. Rhii’s day would come. Just not today. In less than two minutes, he’d stepped into the data center and selected a private booth. He slipped the datacard from his pocket and inserted it into the terminal then watched as the screen exploded in thousands of numbers moving and changing at a pace so fast his eyes could barely recognize them. After another minute, the terminal beeped and the datacard ejected. He returned it to his pocket then slipped out and headed back the way he’d come.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

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