In her craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
Writers try to show with a character’s body all the time, but it often starts to read like a medical chart that details the status of her internal organs, or a dance number that chronicles what her limbs are doing. I don’t care about your character’s oddly detached body parts.
Physical telling is unavoidable in your fiction writing, but you need to be careful about it.
In her book Mary Kole defines physical telling as “conveying a character’s emotional state with body language, gesture, and description of various internal organs.”
You’ll likely see examples of physical telling on almost any page of a book of fiction you’re reading.
Physical telling often comes in long scenes of dialogue because rather than having two characters speak to each other without any breaks in the pacing, the writer will often put in moments of physical telling, especially when the writer wants the reader to know how one of the characters is feeling internally at that particular moment.
Here’s an example…
“Do you know where Stephanie went?” Ethan asked.
Katie shoved her hands against her hips. “No idea.”
“Okay, thanks. Just thought I’d ask.”
“When did you last see her?”
“On the playground,” he said. “I feel like she’s avoiding me.”
Ethan turned toward the classroom door, but Katie grabbed him by the arm before he could leave. “Wait.”
“I just wanted to tell you… I’ve never liked her,” Katie said. “I think she’s kind of a bully.”
Ethan scratched the back of his neck, his gaze still on the door. “Yeah, I guess.”
Let’s look at some of the physical telling in this scene I just made up. Some of it’s okay, but some of it could be changed or possibly deleted.
“Katie shoved her hands against her hips” is sort of a meaningless phrase. What does that tell us about her emotional state? It’s kind of vague. It might work as a way to break up the dialogue, but you should probably look for a better sentence.
The sentence that begins with “Ethan turned toward the classroom door” is more of a bit of action than physical telling, but at the end, a better example of physical telling is “Ethan scratched the back of his neck, his gaze still on the door.” The body language there tells you he doesn’t really agree with Katie’s opinion on the matter. The line “Yeah, I guess” kind of tells you that too, but that added line of physical telling helps get the point across in a clearer way.
The scene above is not a great example of physical telling, but it’s a decent one. It could probably use a couple of revisions, but you at least get the idea of what physical telling is.
The problem you’ll have in your fiction, especially when you want to get represented or published, is when you go overboard with your physical telling.
Again, you’re going to need some examples of physical telling in your fiction for pacing, for meaning. In visual mediums the physical telling is always clear, but in writing, your reader doesn’t always know what your characters are physically doing at every point in time.
But does your reader need to know what your character is always doing physically? Absolutely not. And yet many aspiring writers will feel like every sentence needs to bring a visual image to your reader’s head, even when two characters are just talking.
Here’s another example…
Ethan smiled at Katie from across the room. “Hi. It’s nice to see you.”
“Good to see you too,” Katie said, batting her eyes and licking her lips.
He crossed his arms tightly and started walking toward her. “I’m not friends with Stephanie anymore, by the way.”
Katie pushed her hands back against the closest desk. “That’s good. I never liked her.”
Ethan tilted his head to the left. “Why not?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just like you better.” She blushed.
“Sweet.” Ethan chuckled through his nose and ran his index finger across his mouth. “I’m so excited about this development.”
“Me too,” Katie said, grinning excitedly.
Okay, I can’t go on, I feel like my brain’s being fried by this terrible writing, but you get the idea. If you’re laughing at this point, that’s probably a good thing. If you think anything in that above example is working well at a dramatic level, yikes.
Notice how all that physical telling makes the scene ridiculous? I mean, that horrible dialogue isn’t helping, but giving the reader every single bit of the characters’ physical action does the scene no favors, that’s for sure.
But wait, you’ve been told to always show and never tell in your writing!
This is true. In many ways it’s better in your writing to show things that are physically happening than to just tell the reader how the characters are feeling. At least that above terrible example doesn’t have a moment like this…
Ethan loved Katie more than she knew, and he was about to prove it. “I’m so excited about this development.”
“Me too,” Katie said, waiting excitedly to kiss him. She’d loved him since freshman year and now was finally the time they could be together.
You start getting into that territory, and most of your readers will likely be vomiting into a bucket before they reach the end of the scene.
Showing is usually better than telling, but you need to show restraint in that regard too. A little bit of physical telling goes a long way, remember that. A really good example or maybe two in a scene of dialogue will usually be enough to give the reader everything they need to know.
So be careful when it comes to physical telling, all right? Find a proper balance. Be original with the words you use. Don’t just keep having characters smile and nod and laugh and put their hands on their hips.
Use physical telling in ways that always helps develop your characters and make them come alive for your readers as much as possible.