[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Storyteller's Mission with Zena Del Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story. For those of you that don't know, I've had a significant incident happen in my life that's caused a lot of pain lately, and that is that my beloved father passed away
[00:00:21] On top of that, as I'm sure that you can hear, I have gotten sick and I've lost my voice. As a result of that, I've decided to do something different for the next couple of weeks for the podcast. Instead of trying to give current episodes, I've decided to go back into the archives. There is some really great stuff that I have recorded in the past that never got edited or put out there So I think it's a great time to dig into those so that I can focus properly on going through the grieving cycle that is so necessary when you lose a loved one.
[00:01:00] Just because they're archived does not mean that they're not relevant or current. It just means I never did anything with them. And so how very awesome that I have them waiting to be used for such a time as this.
[00:01:13] I hope that you will enjoy these archived episodes, and I look forward to talking to you more when I return.
[00:01:20] Okay, so today what I want to address is a concept that all storytellers are familiar with, though they may not have mastered yet.
[00:01:30] Now, this is something we're going to talk about a lot because there's lot of different ways to do this and it is one of the most important story principles you'll ever master.
[00:01:40] And that is this thing called show, don't tell. How do we show don't tell? How do we do it? It's a concept that I find that a lot of writers struggle with.
[00:01:52] Now, on the one hand, people struggle because they're unclear exactly what it means. But on the other hand there are people who know what it means and yet struggle with how to accomplish it. So, we're screwed up a little bit on this concept on both areas.
[00:02:08] When you show don't tell the point is is that you're trying to show the audience or the reader what your character is feeling or thinking or whatever is internally happening with your character. You are trying to show the audience instead of tell because telling is not good storytelling, showing is.
[00:02:30] Showing involves the audience. It allows the audience to interpret what's happening and then they get to be part of it. See, it invites them into a partnership with the story and it makes them invest in the story. And they love to do that, right? We love to do that.
[00:02:47] We love to read it and figure out, "Ooh, they're angry" or, "Ooh, she's really jealous" from whatever it is that we're reading without having to be told. The minute you tell something, you've robbed your audience or your readers of the joy of figuring out what it means, why it's important, and where the character is at emotionally.
[00:03:08] The other purpose of showing is to make it so that we understand character relationships. We always want to know what characters think about each other, how they feel about each other, what the status of that relationship is, who has the power. But you want to try not to tell us.
[00:03:29] You always want to try to show it by creating a scene that reveals it through those characters interactions, through the way they speak to each other, through the way they behave around each other.
[00:03:41] That is showing and not telling. And that's what makes for exciting storytelling. So we're going to be unpacking that. And again, there are lots of different ways that you can do that.
[00:03:51] So, for example, I'll see a lot of people who will rightly try to show, don't tell by focusing on character actions. And this is a really great thing to do, by the way because your character needs to act. And the point is, is that you're allowing your audience to interpret those actions to ascertain what the internal emotional state is of your character.
[00:04:16] So approaching show don't tell from the point of view of action is a wonderful technique that you should adopt.
[00:04:24] However, a lot of times people will do that and yet they're focusing on the wrong kind of action. And I see this happen all the time. So let me give you an example.
[00:04:37] I recently had one of my students submit something. She was trying to focus on character actions. And she wrote something in the vein of, "She looks away, she looks back. She looks away. A single tear rolls down her cheek."
[00:04:53] Okay, so on the one hand, the action itself is very much minutiae, right? When you focus on the microexpressions of the character, you're actually doing a disservice to your story because it's not what we would call a significant action. It's melodrama.
[00:05:14] The minute you start doing, she looks away, she looks back, she looks away. All of a sudden you've entered into the realm of soap opera, melodrama.
[00:05:23] That's actually what I would call micromanaging your characters. If you're writing a novel and you're doing a lot of that, it's still the same thing as if you're writing it in a screenplay.
[00:05:33] And the difference is, of course, in a screenplay, you're literally not letting the actors act. And you want to respect the craft of the actor and let them be the ones who infuse into the story those sorts of minutiae, those sorts of tiny actions. You want them to come up with that. That's their job. They're good at it.
[00:05:57] Now, if you're not writing a screenplay and you're writing a novel, the same principle applies because you still don't want to treat your characters like marionettes because they don't stay believable. They become soap opera characters then and melodramatic.
[00:06:13] And so what you want to do is instead try to get away from microexpressions or microactions and instead focus on what I would call significant actions.
[00:06:26] Okay. So what is a significant action? Well, I think a good way for you to understand significant action is to think of it as an action that prevents your character from staying in the same place or from being able to hide it. It's an action that they can't go back from.
[00:06:50] So for example, a significant action would be she picks up the water bottle and she hurls it across the room. Okay, that would be a significant action.
[00:07:00] Why? Well, for one thing, if I am in a room with another character when I do that, guess what? That's a significant action that speaks to the status of our relationship, right?
[00:07:13] It's something I can't go back on. It changes the status of our relationship. Something has changed. It can't be just hidden and covered up.
[00:07:22] Just like in real life, in relationships. If you do something radical like that, it's out there now. You can't just pretend it never happened.
[00:07:31] So it raises the stakes of what's happening. It reveals feelings at a deeper level because every time you choose a significant action, the point is that you're trying to reveal through action how the characters are feeling inside, but you're allowing the audience to interpret the actions so that they're the ones who are saying, Oh, she's angry or Oh, she's really jealous whatever the thing is, the audience gets to interpret the action rather than you telling the audience what the feeling is.
[00:08:08] A good acid test would be is it an action that the character can't go back on? See, it's easy to hide microexpressions. That's not significant enough that it's changed the relationship.
[00:08:21] Now here's the thing that's interesting. This is true even if the character is alone. Right? Let's say somebody's come into my office. They've threatened me. I've kept my cool the whole time that they were there and then they leave. And then I'm so angry I overturn everything on my desk and I make a mess and all those good things.
[00:08:43] Well, guess what. Because of the extent of my emotions that I have now displayed to the audience they can absolutely see that I am insane with rage because of whatever's happened with that other character, right?
[00:09:00] Well, now I have to do something about it, even if the other character didn't see it because the audience did. The readers did. And so it, again, propels the story forward, compels the character to act, raises the stakes, changes the status of the character relationships, and infuses so much excitement into the narrative itself.
[00:09:26] So these are all the things that a significant action can do. Nevertheless, the action is significant because it tells the audience it's an action I can't go back on.
[00:09:37] Once I've been raised to that level of anger. Or that level of frustration or whatever. Now I have to take radical action in turn. So it makes it impossible to go back to being casual and cool. Now it just raised the story to the next level. It's progressed the story, which is why it's significant.
[00:09:57] Whereas, if it's, you know, she clenches her jaw. Alright. That's something that I can go back on. That's something that doesn't change the status of our relationship.
[00:10:08] Because, okay, I've been angry enough to clench my jaw, but that's still a microexpression or a microaction that I can cover up and not have to act on.
[00:10:21] Now don't get me wrong, there are going to be times when you write things like she blinks, or she averts her gaze, or something like that.
[00:10:29] Sometimes you'll use those. And sometimes those are significant given whatever the context is. But for the most part, that would be a microexpression that wouldn't be significant.
[00:10:42] When these types of little actions are being overly used, it becomes pedantic and banal. We need to think bigger than that. We need to think about how to show and not tell in a way that propels the story forward, that infuses energy into the narrative, that raises the stakes and that also reveals the internal emotional state of the character in such a way that we know they can't go back on that. Once they've been brought to that place emotionally, there's no way for them to return to the old way of being. It forces them to take action in a new way.
[00:11:18] When an audience reads or sees one of those things happening, it's exciting. We are immediately re-engaged because we know it's a big deal. And usually our characters do things that we might want to do in real life, but we've been trained to be too polite. But our characters, because they're so passionate about whatever it is that's happening, they'll do things that we're not allowed to.
[00:11:44] And it's wonderful and exciting, and it draws us into them, and it makes us connect to them, and want to cheer for them on a deeper level. So it also accomplishes a bonding between the audience and your character when you have significant actions rather than minutiae.
[00:12:03] There are other tools that we can use, other tricks to the trade.
[00:12:06] I want to talk about a principle called using visual cues. Now this, of course, you're going to use this all the time. You can't get away from using visual cues. Arguably, everything in your story is a visible cue.
[00:12:23] But I want you to reconceive this idea of writing stuff in such a way that you're cueing the audience in to the important internal emotional state of your character.
[00:12:35] You're cueing them in. It's the same as if you go to a play and there are cues and the cues signal things to the audience and also to the actors. They know that, oh, here's the cue, the sound cue, the lighting cue, things happen on stage as a result of the cues. But it also cues the audience into what's going on with your character on the inside.
[00:12:57] So, visible cues you're going to use all the time. But I want to talk to you about how you can come up with them in a way that is truly important because a lot of writers simply don't think through how to compose a story using visual cues.
[00:13:13] Alright, so let me give you an example. So, let's say that I want to show two people becoming friends or respecting each other over the course of the story. But they start out not respecting each other.
[00:13:29] And maybe these two characters are from two totally different worlds and they don't think that the other person could understand who they are or whatever the case may be. Let's say, in this example, that we're in prison. And you've got the white collar crime guy, the accountant, who maybe stole money from some corporate big wig, and so he's in jail for a white collar crime, versus some mafia guy who is in prison for doing violent crimes and he's been in charge, of course, a whole syndicate and terrible things and in charge of a drug trade or what have you. So, totally different guys, right? And one of them is tough as nails and the other one is not tough as nails because he's an accountant, right?
[00:14:19] And so they are from two totally different worlds. But you want to show a progression of relationship. Well, how do you do that?
[00:14:26] Well, you do it through visual cues. You figure out a scene that you could use that you can then repeat the scene and show development or show things moving forward. So, for example, let's say you show them eating at the lunch table.
[00:14:43] And here they are, they're at lunch and the white collar guy reaches for a roll or something and the mafia guy grabs his arm and flings it back.
[00:14:54] Okay, so now we know that the white collar crime guy is not allowed to have rolls and he's going to obey that because, clearly, the mafia guy is tough as nails and he's not going to let him do that.
[00:15:09] So that's the relationship where we're at at the beginning. We know who's in charge. We know who has the power and we know how he feels about the little guy, right? Okay, now you cut to later in the story where maybe they've accomplished something and the, the accountant has had a significant role in accomplishing some plan that they tried to carry out.
[00:15:32] And so now they're around the table and there's rolls on the table. And, uh, all of a sudden the mafia guy picks up the basket and holds it over to the accountant guy. And now the accountant guy takes a roll. Well now through a visual cue, you've told us something really significant.
[00:15:50] But you didn't tell us. You showed us.
[00:15:52] How do we know how that mafia guy feels about the character now? The accountant? Well, we know that he sort of respects him a little bit. He's earned a higher status with the mafia guy. That's significant, but you're showing it instead of telling it.
[00:16:10] So all you've done there is in two scenes, you've basically progressed their relationship through the use of visual cues. And the cue was the rolls. Right? That's all you're using is the rolls and how they behave around the rolls, but it's not just the rolls. It's the grabbing the arm and flicking it, or it's the picking up the basket and handing it. And then the accountant reaching for it. Like it says so much, but all of it is composed around visual cues.
[00:16:41] So what you want to do is simply try to use visual cues to help forward your story. Figure out what visual cues you can use, how you can have characters behave in a way that shows things through visual cues.
[00:16:54] The bread basket thing is so much better than a conversation where the two talk about, you know, I thought that you were kind of just a dummy. Uh, but I kind of like you now. You did really good on that little task that we assigned to you.
[00:17:08] That's boring and we don't want to have to resort to dialogue. We want to show character progression, relationship development through visual cues.
[00:17:17] So think about that in terms of romantic relationships too. How you can show it through visual cues. Progression of relationship through the use of visual cues is one of the best things you'll do.
[00:17:29] And also progression of character development, personal, one character, through the use of visual cues. Things that you're using to show us how the character has changed.
[00:17:42] So for example, in the movie The Deer Hunter, right? We start out with a character who goes hunting and he kills deer.
[00:17:51] But by the end of it, he can't do it. He can't pull the trigger on that beautiful deer. And it shows significant change inside that character. He cannot do it anymore. It's a visual cue. It's a visual cue.
[00:18:06] So as you go forward in your own story, whether you're writing a screenplay or whether you're writing a novel, my encouragement to you is to rethink the types of actions that you use to reveal the inner emotional state of your character. And instead of focusing on microexpressions, simply modify your thinking to focus on significant actions.
[00:18:34] Focus on visual cues. That's how you show, and not tell us, how a relationship is feeling, how a character is feeling on the inside, and what the status of that relationship is.
[00:18:46] You've been listening to one of the special lost episodes of The Storyteller's Mission. Something that we've archived a while ago, but have been able to bring out for such time as this.
[00:18:58] And I hope that you enjoyed it and are able to apply it to your own writing and that it ups your game significantly.
[00:19:05] In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.