Novelist Cynthia Ruchti Explains How to Show Rather Than Tell A Story

Cindy Huff

Today’s post is an interview with Cynthia Ruchti, past president of ACFW, Co-founder of The Heartbeat of the Home radio ministry, and novelist.  Her novel They Almost Always Come Home has been nominated for a Carol Award. How exciting for you, Cynthia.

Tell us what it feels like to be a finalist.

My respect for the Carol Award program and for ACFW makes this especially meaningful to me. The fact that it’s my debut novel adds another layer of joy. And knowing how many excellent Women’s Fiction novels were published in 2010 puts me in awe.  

Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to help aspiring older writers continue to hone their craft. One of the hardest things to understand as a writer is show not tell.  Can you give us a definition that we can wrap our minds around?

I can watch a video of Niagara Falls and be impressed by what I see. Or I can stand at the railing and feel it rumble beneath my feet. I can feel the spray of water from as far away as the parking lot. I can experience Niagara Falls rather than watch a video of it. Showing rather than telling is a little like that. A photo of the Grand Canyon may be beautiful and inspiring. Standing on its rim, sensing it in 3-D, watching the colors change and feeling the dizziness from an overload of magnificence makes it an experience. Our readers can read about an event or an action or an emotion. Or they can feel it for themselves when we take them by the hand through a scene and invite, “Here. Let me show you.”  

Explain the difference between back story and showing?

Backstory is all that happened in the life of the character prior to the beginning of the book. As is true in real-life relationships, that backstory is not dumped on us when we first meet a person. It is revealed little by little as the relationship develops. Some of it is never revealed, either because of guardedness or because the detail is not important to the relationship, just as some details are not vital to a story. It would seem that backstory and showing aren’t related, but where they do have crossover is when a writer tries to force-feed information to the reader that could be expressed more effectively through careful and deliberate showing techniques. For instance, the writer can tell: Sixteen years earlier, when she was twelve, she lost both her parents in a house fire. Or, the writer can show: Heather stared at the small, innocent flame of the votive candle on the table between them. Ambiance. Candles and romance—a perfect match. But matches start fires, fires little girls can’t quench no matter how much they scream. She flinched at the sound of an ambulance on the street outside the restaurant. Was it on its way to the scene of a fire to pick up the charred remains of someone’s parents and comfort a twelve-year-old who doesn’t deserve comforting? The votive flame flickered and went out. On cue, the waiter plucked a butane torch from his pocket to relight the stubborn wick. Heather slapped her hand over the votive holder. Its hot rim burned into her palm. She let it burn. In that example, we see hints about what must have happened to her as a child, reasons for her fears and guilt. But the writer didn’t tell us “She’s afraid. Her parents died. It was all her fault.” We experience the guilt with her. We see her wrestle with the internal conflict that will likely color the entire book. As readers, we feel what she felt, as if living it out rather than reading about it.

Is telling ever good?

Definitely.  It’s far more frequent to find too much telling and too little showing, but the reverse can be true. Showing takes more words, generally speaking. Sometimes the story calls for a brief relating of a fact. “The clock struck one. The mouse ran down” is far more effective in that case than “She watched the minute hand inch its way toward the new hour. What was that movement behind the clock face? A shadow. A small, terrifying shadow skittered across her field of vision. With quickened pulse, she clutched her sweater closed at the neck, as if that would help. Something was in the room with her. The splattering of goosebumps told her so. The clock hand moved. It moved again. One o’clock. One chime. One shadow with four legs and a worm-like tail. A mouse!”

Besides dialogue what other ways can a writer show?

Internal thoughts can convey effective showing in storytelling. Heather flinched. She could still smell smoke in the air. Sixteen-year-old smoke. How long, Lord? How long before he asks me why I’m the one woman in Lake Tahoe who doesn’t appreciate a quiet evening by the fire? How long before I have to tell him that I made myself an orphan?

Showing emotion or reaction through body language or something the reader can visualize helps readers feel engaged in the scene, not just spectators. TELLING: She was cold. SHOWING: Her breath hung in brief puffs of crystallized vapor. She flipped up her hood, then tucked her hands deep into her pockets. Another dumb purchase—a fashion coat rather than one designed to protect her from the elements. Vanity wins another misery. The shiver that shook her started on the surface of her skin, but drove deeper, past muscle and sinews to raw bone.

How does POV (point of view) play into show not tell?

It’s more challenging to show when writing from a first person POV, in my opinion. In They Almost Always Come Home, the main character, Libby, shares her story from first person/present tense. Throughout the writing of the book, I was ultra-conscious of staying away from, “I go to the cupboard. I take out a cup. I start the tea kettle. I see the condensation on the outside of the stainless steel.” But to stay in a strict first person/present tense format, those boring moments would be natural. I worked hard to find creative ways to get the point across without serving as a sleep aid for my readers. First person/present tense seemed to fit the story and help draw the reader into Libby’s life, her rational and irrational thoughts, her fears and moments of courage.

There are times in a novel that summary is used to move the story along. Some may confuse telling with summary. How are they different and when should summary be used?

This may be personal opinion, but in those rare times when summary might be necessary, I believe it’s still possible to show that information rather than tell it, as a journalist might, or as we might read in a nonfiction piece. Heather considered her options. She imagined how many steps she’d need to get from the table to the front door, and if she could cross the room while he bent to pick up his napkin. No, running had never gained her the distance she’d craved. She could tell the truth. For once. The bile climbing her esophagus vetoed that option. She could concoct another lie, one as intricate and tantalizing as the béarnaise sauce on the uneaten steak in front of her. “I’m fine,” she said. Lying came so easily.

Any other points you’d like to make regarding show not tell?

Finding ways to show an emotion rather than telling it almost always enriches the scene. Readers are pulled into the life of the character, which makes the book harder to put down, the story harder to leave, even temporarily. Many writing craft books delve into the subject of showing rather than telling. Almost all of them propose that emotions like fear, love, hatred, embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger can be expressed most effectively without using those words but with painting a picture of how the character’s body and mind react to those emotions.

Cynthia, thank you so much for sharing I think you’ve made a clearer distinction for us on the subject. Before you go please tell us about your latest writing projects.  

Tapping into the same storytelling principles and the same undercurrent of faith present in my novels, I participated in a devotional collection that will release in the fall of 2011 from Summerside Press—His Grace is Sufficient…But Decaf is Not. I’m also working on the final chapters of a novella collection titled Cedar Creek Seasons (Barbour Publishing), based on the charming town and even more charming characters of Cedarburg, Wisconsin. I’m also working on another full-length novel for Abingdon Press. Which reminds me. I’d better get back to writing! But please know the world stops when readers contact me. Interacting with readers through Facebook, Twitter, via email, or through blogs like this one motivates me to keep writing. Thanks for the opportunity to connect with your blog friends, Cindy. www.cynthiaruchti.com

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Why Attend Writer’s Conferences

Every time I attend a writing conference I am reminded of
why I write. My encouragement to every writer, no matter their age or
experience, is to attend conferences.  There is never a time in your writing career
that you evolve out of writing conferences.  It is a place to hone your craft and network with other like-minded people.

Basic reasons for attending

You gain knowledge of the business of writing through workshops and classes which cover a variety of subjects. Basic techniques for writing non-fiction and fiction books are usually offered. Classes are available on subjects ranging from writing articles to creating a stellar proposal. The opportunity to have appointments with publishers, editors and agents to pitch your story or idea is worth the price of the conference. Many of these editors, publishers and agents will not take any unsolicited submissions. But if you meet them at a conference, your pitch may garner you an open invitation to submit.

Networking

Conferences are a networking opportunity to meet other writers and be encouraged.  One writer might direct you to a particular publisher who is seeking what you are writing. Established writers may give you personal introductions to the professionals you are seeking appointments with. Fledgling writers ask questions of other writers and get the encouragement and direction needed to turn their scribbles into successful submissions. You’ll discover writers who live in your area or alocal writer’s group to join.

Encouragement

This is the place where everyone speaks your language. No one rolls their eyes when you say you’ve written a novel.  You can practice your pitch with other
writers before you pitch it at your appointment.  Most conferences have critique groups of your peers to help you improve your writing. Unlike Aunt Sally who loves everything you write, they can tell you of any red flags in your writing that need fixing. That kind of encouragement makes the road to publication easier.

The keynote speakers remind writers of their calling. A writer’s revival if you will, that helps each writer refocus. Rekindling the confidence that has been chipped away by editors’ rejections and life happens interruptions.

Lifelong Friendships

Every time you attend a conference you make new friends and
reconnect with old ones.  Writer friends add dimension to your life and open doors.  Becoming friends with publishers that may not be interested in what you are writing now plants your name in their mind when the publisher’s needs change.  Acquisition Editors change publishing houses, agents may open their own company. Having made their acquaintance puts you in a good position to become a client.   Writer friends share the link to your new book or article on their blog, website or facebook page.  Let’s not forget they are there
when you feel stomped on by life and misunderstood in the industry.

Budget attending one conference a year

Serious writers know this is an important business expense. Decide on the conference you plan to attend early and put money aside in your budget for it.  If your finances are so tight you can’t fit the cost in a monthly budget, apply for scholarships or grants. Conferences will offer a limited number of scholarships, either full or partial to attendees. Some offer work scholarships for locals who help with the preconference preparation.  Do a Google search for writer’s grants or reference the Writer’s Market Guide and the Christian Writer’s Market Guide to pursue grant leads. The e-newsletter Funds for Writers has grant information
in every issue.

Locate a conference near you

The Sally Stuart Conference Guide http://stuartmarket.com/Conferences.aspx
is a great resource for finding the conference that is right for you.