Internality and Show vs Tell

Welcome to Day 8 of Blogtober! Before I launch into today’s complicated topic, I have to say I’m a little disappointed more people didn’t read yesterday’s. It focuses on writer’s getting to their heart of themselves in order to make deeper, greater stories.

Now let’s get into terms.

Internality

If my editing software is to be believed, “Internality” isn’t even a word. Maybe it isn’t? Let’s define it so that it has value for the purposes of our writing.

I first started hearing the term from a couple of people in my writer’s group that primarily write YA. They wanted more internality from my character, and they wanted me to stop using so much distancing language.

After that, the term came up in talking with M. Todd Gallowglas. From his perspective, internality has more to do with the experience of the character. What did the Scotch taste like to the character, and how did that affect them?

For purposes of this essay, internality refers to the emotions, thoughts, and personal experience of the character in the moment of the story.

Show vs Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the most common advice a writer will hear these days. It means that, rather than flat out stating how a character feels or what is going on in their heart or head, the writer should draw it out with descriptions and subtext.

Let’s try an example. We’ll write a couple of paragraphs about John sitting in a waiting room, about to receive some news. This is the “Tell” example:

John waited impatiently. He wondered if the doctor kept him waiting on purpose. When the doctor finally appeared with the news, John felt relieved.

I’m not a fan of this paragraph. I’ve seen many like it in manuscripts and while it’s brief, it is unimaginative, flat, and boring.

Here is the “Show” example:

John sat on the edge of his seat, his teeth gnashing at the corner of his thumbnail. Dull pain throbbed from a finger on his other hand where he chewed the nail down to the quick. His eyes darted up to the clock, fixating on the minute hand. When the minute rolled into the next with a ponderous click, John sprung to his feet and paced the short distance between the bench seats. His hand went to his mouth to mar another fingernail.

“Mr. Smith?”

John turned at the sound of the voice. An older woman in a lab coat carrying a clipboard stood at the entrance of the waiting room. At the sight of her, the wind rushed out of John’s lungs in a ragged sigh.

I like this quite a bit more. It’s longer, but it’s also personal. We’ve all been John. His impatience is palpable. We don’t know what kind of news he’s waiting for, but we’re more invested in waiting with him because we have an easier time seeing through his eyes.

That is the difference between Show vs Tell. It isn’t just about being more verbose. It’s about choosing details which convey emotion and imparts meaning to the scene.

Internality vs Tell

One of my friends asked the question, “If there is a demand for more internality, how does that relate to the idea of ‘show don’t tell’ when so much of what is being asked for looks like ‘tell’?”

The answer is that you can show internality.

Looking back at the examples above, the “tell” example contains internality. We know what’s going on inside the character’s head because it’s very explicit. In fact, that’s pretty much all that is in that paragraph.

We get the exact same internality in the “show” example. In both, John is waiting impatiently, but we experience it through him chewing his nails and watching the clock. As a reader, we know that time feels slow and sluggish for John. There’s a dread filling his mind, and he has nothing to occupy him from it.

A Confession

I struggle a little bit with the idea of internality as described in this essay, and I only recently discovered that it’s a problem. In my early drafts, I tend to use distancing language.

You may be like me. Look for all the places where you use the word “have.” Ask yourself if the word needs to be there. If you use “have” quite a bit, you may be doing what I do and putting distance between yourself and the character.

Adding the internality, getting deeper into the heads of my characters, is something I look for during revision. If you’re using distancing language in your early drafts like I do, it’s okay. Do whatever you need to in order to finish a draft. Just remember to look for this during revisions and your story will be fine.

Parting Thoughts

Sometimes, the struggle to become a better writer doesn’t seem fair. Just when you think you know what your doing with one aspect of the craft, another concept is thrown into the mix. It’s like getting the hang of juggling, and someone just out of eyesight keeps throwing more objects into the air for you to catch. Sometimes those objects are sharp and pointy.

My recommendation is to master “show, don’t tell” first before worrying too much about internality. When you get better at showing the characters, the scene, the action, the nuance, everything you write becomes much more engaging.

You don’t have to juggle everything all at once.

Your exercise tonight: go back through something you’ve recently written and look for places where you can make a scene more experiential. Ask yourself if you can put the reader even deeper within the head of a character. Or, if you prefer to write something new, take my example as a prompt and write a couple of paragraphs about your own character in a waiting room.

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