“I Don’t Get Nervous.”

by limebirdkate

Okay, so there I am, having finished reading my 5 pages out loud to my writer’s group and Liz, the non-cookie-baking grandmother, looked at me over the rims of her specs.

“I don’t understand this,” she told me, referring to a sentence in the manuscript. “‘Swooping, sharp pains in her stomach’.” Liz spread her arms out and shook her head. “What does that mean?”

I replied, “It means she’s nervous.”

“So, why don’t you just write ‘she’s nervous’?”

“Because I wanted to show it, not tell it.”

Liz just stared at me. She might have blinked once, but I couldn’t be sure.

I tried to explain further. “You know, how it feels when you get nervous? Your stomach gets all tight or loopy…”

Liz said, “I don’t get nervous.”

Now it was my turn to be speechless. She doesn’t get nervous? What kind of person doesn’t get nervous?

Maybe Liz is an anomaly (in fact, I’m almost sure of it). Nevertheless the incident brought the concept of “show, don’t tell” to my attention.

How do writers convey ideas or emotions or actions to readers who might not have shared the same experience? This question would apply not only to basic emotions like nervousness, but to fantastical ideas like reincarnation. Simply because someone has never gone spelunking does that mean they wouldn’t appreciate a novel that details the exhilaration of exploring a cave?

How much showing should a writer do, and when is it appropriate to simplify matters and tell it like it is?

There are definitely times that I have gotten straight to the point and told the readers something. But I did it because the moment called for it. Sometimes the narrative needed a sense of urgency and directness. Or I might streamline a character’s description because he has a macho personality and wouldn’t hold up well under superabundant language.

Maybe Liz was onto something in my piece, maybe not. Maybe I should say outright that my protag was nervous and move on. Or maybe that particular scene warrants detail because her nervousness disguises the fact she’s dying from stomach cancer.

Whatever you do, show or tell, I think it depends on what you’re trying to convey in the scene, or the character, or the plot, or the story as a whole.

Sometimes you should linger in the garden, and sometimes you should get the hell outta there before the terrorist’s bomb explodes.

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26 Comments to ““I Don’t Get Nervous.””

  1. I run into this all the time! It can be hard to know when a description of a character’s emotion is compelling and deepens the reader’s connection, as opposed to slowing the reader down. A lot of it comes down to the particular passage, but it’s certainly something to be aware of as you write. Glad to see I’m not the only one. ;)

    • Hi Annie,

      Nope, you’re not the only one! I think it is hard to get that inner story to be concise yet detailed at the same time. While we don’t want to be slowing the reader down, we also don’t want to be boring either. And absolutely, each passage calls for its own framework and the detail within.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. I think it’s the hardest thing for me to do. We hear the advice to “keep things moving.” But then we’re supposed to “show, don’t tell.” Well, even the most concise “show” usually requires more words than “tell.” I try to trust my instincts, but I hope my beta readers are finding the areas where I get it wrong!

    • Hey JM,

      I had to chuckle when I read your post. That’s exactly how I feel sometimes: what’s the best way to move the action but still be “writerly” about it? It makes me think of those days when I was a waitress and the management always said you need to turn over your tables fast but still upsell your customers appetizers and desserts and coffee. How can you quickly turn over your tables, and sell four courses to each party?

      And you’re right, figuring out when to show and when to tell comes down to your instincts. It’s the best we can do on this end.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. The reference to “show” and “not just tell” is important. And this is a lovely example and story from your group and about Liz’s reaction. The showing is so important that it can not be emphasized enough. How much one writer uses this concept may be the art involved with the craft. The creative use of the language comes in here now. This is where new metaphors come from, from the writers imagination. And if these get repeated they become old cliches. As all of us remember the nervousness cliche – “butterflies in the tummy” [or whatever one calls their stomach], but none of us would use it because now it isn’t original. But, you might have a character speaking that – about butterflies.
    Liz’s comment, while it may be true for her, is a quipping one, and a copout because most people get nervous about something, if not many things. What I am not sure about is if the nervousness in one’s stomach actually becomes “sharp pain” in most people. And that may be the real point Liz needed to make. “Swooping” is interesting, because there is familiar sensing of stomach sensations when initiating a free fall or acceleration in rollercoaster, or traveling high speed over a low rise in the road. The sense of fear and dread is another type of emotion, though. It has many anxiety symptoms that can affect the digestive tract that range from vomiting to the other extreme of colon gas to uncontrolled colon in a state of fear. In the middle of one’s torso, yes swooping is good and different. What animals swoop? Birds. Birds have wings like butterflies. A hawk would be too big. Hummingbirds might swoop and fit. Or a ………… well, that’s my take on this. Use some kind of swooping bird or swooping snakes. Snakes in one’s stomach would make me nervous.

    • Hi Tim,

      Yes, showing has to be original and interesting and capture a reader’s imagination. It’s funny you brought up “butterflies” because Liz is 100% against cliches, and I’m so mindful of landmines like that when I’m reading my work in front of her. Liz is also anti-metaphor and anti-simile, so it’s pretty tough to win her over! :)

      Perhaps “sharp pain” isn’t a typical symptom in nervousness for most people, but that is exactly the point I was trying to make. That how do we expect other readers to understand details like that if they don’t have the same experiences. (I personally do get sharp pains which are immediately followed by a nauseous feeling.) Liz may or may not get nervous, but to describe nervousness or anything else to meet every reader’s standard or experience is in the realm of impossible.

      Our job as writers, therefore, is to determine the purpose of the showing in relation to the passage or character or setting or whatever. Sometimes telling is the best way to go.

      Oh yes, snakes swooping in my stomach would be enough to put me over the edge.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  4. Show is almost always better than tell. Almost. But sometimes it needs clarification. Could you say something like “Swooping, sharp pains in her stomach, her nerves couldn’t take much more of this” or something to that effect? Indicate the why while still showing the what. I’m not sure how it will work in your situation, but I appreciate when something like that is clarified. There are many reasons why stomach pains would occur. Unless the situation is obviously a nervous one, I as a reader, might not know why her stomach is hurting. It’s really about the contexts. Hope that helps some.

    • Hey Raven,

      Thanks for the helpful ideas. Yes, context is key in this and in this particular scene my protagonist was meeting up with her ex-boyfriend that she is still in love with. Her nerves are all over the place in this scene and that was just one example.

      I guess I prefer to avoid using the word “nerves/nervousness” if I can show it, because I worry about stating the obvious. But I will admit, sometimes I think it’s obvious and it isn’t obvious to other people. That’s where those lovely beta readers/writing groups come in.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • I understand why you wouldn’t want to use them at all. Once you have established the context, in a book or series, you never have to beyond that first time. But….I’m still new at this, so I could be totally off base. I know Janet Evanovich does similar descriptives, but I can’t for the life of me remember if she ever said the words. It might be worth looking at the first book or two in her Stephanie Plum series to get an idea of how to get that across w/out telling.

      • Awesome! I will check into that series. Thanks! ;)

  5. This is slightly off topic but still related.
    I read out a piece of 100 word flash fiction I was especially proud of at my old writing group. I’d sweated over it, and agonised over the ending making sure it was the best I could get – making the point in a subtle yet powerful way. Bingo, I thought.
    After I read it out, there was a silence for about ten seconds before one of the members – looking embarrassed and quite confused – managed, ‘have you actually finished, Cath?’

    • Hi Cath,

      Ooh, that could be uncomfortable! Did they know it was flash fiction? In flash fiction are you always supposed to have an “ending”? I thought it could go either way, but I could be wrong. I don’t do a lot of flash fiction because I am way too broad in my story ideas. :)

      I see what you mean, though, regarding the subtle ending leaving some people hanging. It’s funny, but as I write this I am starting to wonder if part of it is our need for definitive answers. A lot of people don’t like to be unsure of what’s going on in a story and guessing makes them nervous. I think “showing” only worsens that feeling for people, and that’s why they prefer the telling.

      Oh well, I hope it all turned out okay for you!

  6. Thank you for showing us Liz – can I take her home with me, please can I, can I?

    In all seriousness I really enjoyed reading this and think you make your point perfectly by giving us a great example of how in the right style and context showing us Liz rather than simply telling us about her really brings your message alive.

    Like Tim highlights above though, it is difficult to avoid over-used phrases or cliches and also very difficult to write when you’re constantly conscious of not falling into that trap (ouch, what a cliche). I often find myself going back over what I’ve written and stripping away anything that could be construed as being a cliche…then wondering is it really a cliche or just an apt description…then thinking better get rid of it just to be on the safe side, which leaves me with no similes or metaphors and trying to convince myself that’s okay because it’s true to the POV of my narrative.

    Anyway, back to my request, I’ve inflated the guest bed so I just need to know what time Liz’s train gets in…

    • Hi Sally,

      Haha. That’s funny! Sure, I’ll be happy to ship her out to ya!! I’ll even pay the freight charges!

      But, yes, you’re right, cliches run a fine line and what someone thinks is perfectly acceptable and original, someone else might dislike. It’s all relative and in the end, it comes down to what the author feels works best anyway.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  7. Maybe Liz on meds. :)

    For myself, I try and show what is going all the time in regards to the narrative. You wouldn’t want to do that with dialog, because people don’t usually speak that way. Yet, I’ve had drummed into my head, “Show, don’t Tell.” It’s almost like a mantra. Now, how do I get my legs untangled from the lotus position?

    • Hey there!

      Right, very good point. Dialogue is handled much differently than narrative and you certainly wouldn’t have people speaking with words that “show”. That would be strange.

      And you’re right, “show vs tell” is a mantra for many of us. Sometimes it’s nice to stray from the rule now and again!

      PS-if you take your right foot out first, you should be fine ;)

  8. We had “show don’t tell” beaten into our brains in screenwriting classes. I don’t see how anyone could never be nervous…and if that is honestly the case then I’d love to know her secret because I spend my entire day nervous about one thing or another. But anyway I digress…even though a person may not know exactly what something is like, I don’t see why it can’t just be written like you have it written, rather than “they were nervous” – I’m sure there have been times that I don’t know EXACTLY what a character is going through, but it doesn’t bother my reading to have it described to me.

    • Hey there Laura,

      I know. It really bothers me when people say things like that, as if it’s controllable. And you and me both–anxiety is my middle name!

      I really love your response, Laura, because that’s how I ended up feeling after I thought long and hard about it. There are plenty of passages in books that I’ve read that I don’t completely relate to but what mattered to me most was the the language or the imagery or the message and how it made me stop and think. Reading description posed in a different way than what I’ve experienced is interesting and thought-provoking to me. Because it shows me the other side, how someone else might deal with the same situation. We’re all different so why shouldn’t our emotions and inner stories be relayed differently.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  9. I always get nervous sharing my writing. I even get nervous posting on my blog. Then when I touch the publish button my stomach is in knots until I find out if anyone like it. It is very nerve racking, but for now that is just me. I hope with time the anxiety goes away.

    • Hello JCV,

      I think nerves are part of the deal in sharing our writing, because we’re exposing part of our soul. In time, it will get easier–I don’t know that it will totally go away. Do you share your writing in a writer’s group? Because sometimes that really helps, especially if they are supportive and knowledgeable. They will help you feel good about your work, and you will grow more comfortable with sharing your stuff.

      Thanks for commenting.

  10. I prefer showing over telling in writing, but you’re also right that sometimes all a particular scene needs is a single descriptive word. I think it depends on how much emphasis you want to put on the particular thing – do you want readers to feel the loopy nervousness in her stomach or just know she’s nervous and move on? In my humble opinion, how you word it is case dependent.

    • Hi Raisingdaisy,

      Yes, as I read everyone’s comments I think more about the incident. I am beginning to believe that showing and telling are both important depending on what needs to be conveyed in the passage.

      But I’m with you, I opt for showing primarily, then switch to telling if need be.

      Thanks for chiming in !

  11. As always, thanks for writing your posts. I know the Cardinal rule of “show don’t tell” and have been caught many a time telling rather than showing. I suppose when writing a memoir, I’ve become a storyteller, not a story-shower. Once I learned of the “show rule,” I saw how it could be used in my stories to help the reader become more empathetic and to bring my story more to life. But I thought that I had to show rather than tell; and it stunted my rhythm. I went from one extreme to the other.

    Your post helps me see that a middle ground is possible. Being aware of both options gives me a choice. Knowing that both are viable options is very freeing. :)

    • Hey Lorna,

      First off, thanks for your kind words!

      Yes, I will definitely say that there is a middle ground in certain situations. And it is helpful to know that you aren’t stuck having to write a certain way if your gut tells you it doesn’t feel right.

      Most importantly, you need to know and understand your story and the message you want to send. You need to know and understand your characters so that they can carry the story in the most effective way possible. And you need to know and understand your strengths and weaknesses as a writer so that you can sharpen or soften your writing as needed.

      This, of course, all comes with practice and spars with ungrandmotherly-type grandmothers! ;)

      Thanks for chiming in!

  12. I agree, that every writing situation is unique, and the amount of descriptive words needs to be tailored to each piece. Although I find when I am reading a novel, I tend to be distracted by too many descriptive words, as if the author is trying to be overly poetic. It is a balancing act for sure.

    • Hi Words,

      Really good point: it is a balancing act. Showing can be overdone, and if the moment doesn’t call for it then it just reads silly. Telling can be blah and boring and predictable. Knowing your story as intimately as possible is probably the most helpful role an author takes on.

      Thanks for commenting!

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