If you’ve participated in writing classes, programs, or groups of any kind, you’ve likely heard someone admonish “Show, don’t tell!” It’s so commonplace that it’s become a cliche in its own right. But even if the phrase makes you eye-roll, it is also a comment worth considering as a writer, as well as a reader.
What does the text—the story, the characters, the action, the details, all together— actually show happening? What are the characters doing and how are they doing it? Are the words on the page actually in conflict with what we’re supposedly meant to be writing/reading?
What are the words you’ve written showing, even if they’re “telling” something else?
Critiques in writing groups can often bubble into defensive responses from the author: “Well, that wasn’t what I meant!” Okay. But that isn’t the point. That’s still what readers got from your text. If a couple critics point out “Your bad guy not only has dark skin, but is constantly being described with racially-laden terms like dark, dusky, and swarthy, which all can read as sounding like “villains = black or brown men,” that’s not an author’s cue to scream “I’m not racist! That wasn’t what I meant! How dare you?” It’s an opportunity to go “Huh. I guess I did rely on conventional and now-outdated schema in constructing this villain. What can I do to change it so it’s more effective and doesn’t accidentally perpetuate stereotypes?” If you describe your MMC with words like “threatening,” “dangerous,” “demanding,” “single-minded,” “ruthless,” “cruel,” and “furious,” then that has certain connotations, and, working together, create a character who reads a certain way: namely, a real threat at best, and psychotic at worst. If you’ve depicted a FMC who follows her work-crush on a trip and then plots to bed him, ultimately getting him drunk at a bar and then taking him up to her room for a wild night, those actions, singularly and all together, say something about that character… and it is not that she is “just a strong, confident woman who goes for what she wants and is in charge of her own sexuality!” And yet writers (and/or fans) will often protest critiques of this, claiming “I didn’t mean it like that, not in a bad way!” or “It’s meant to show him struggling with his emotions, and it’s not until he gets drunk that he can admit he’s attracted to her, too!”
It happens within the text, too. For example, some of the plot devices and stock character qualities that I’ve already explored can have this effect. If a character continuously demonstrates abusive, unhealthy, or problematic behavior, and yet the other characters in the text keep going “Aw, isn’t it cute, he’s so obsessed with you!” or “I love him. He’s my destiny, the mate of my soul and heart, my happily-ever-after!” that doesn’t make the character’s behavior un-problematic. Especially if the behavior has obviously not changed much over the course of the story.
You can’t just hand-wave it away and call it good.
What is written and how it’s written matters. You can tell me A all you want, but if the text shows me B instead, that is something to address. If the written words in a book told readers it looked like ___, then unless the story does a skillful job of showing how it wasn’t ___ and it’s part of the plot or a character’s development, then a text/author/character can’t just announce “Oh, no, it’s not like that, it means ___” and expect the readers to believe it. This isn’t The Secret, where you say something and it’s so, utter it, and it magically becomes real.
That’s just gaslighting the reader.
If it takes that much explaining about how A is really B or C, perhaps, ah… maybe it wasn’t written effectively in the first place?
From an academic perspective, I’m used to considering texts outside of the umbrella of authorial intent. That said, I usually don’t go full on “death of the author” like some critical theory does. I actually think knowing what the author meant to do or thought they were writing is important. After all, if you knew that, say, Mark Twain was a full-out black-hating racist who belonged to the KKK, or was a closeted gay man with a secret long-time lover who had to hide his sexual identity from the world, you’d read Huck and Tom differently.
But that doesn’t mean that authors get a free pass when we make mistakes. And it means we as writers have to face some potentially sticky and even upsetting situations. I’ve done it myself, intending to portray diversity and feminism, and instead ended up portraying a character who was a mass of tired stereotypes. I could say “But I wasn’t trying to do that” all I wanted, but my readers’ response to the text was the same. By being forced to confront my own assumptions, to admit that yes, I’d made a tone-deaf mistake, I grew as a writer (and an activist) and my story was improved by the changes I made.
It’s okay to say for us as writers to respond to criticism like that with “Wow, that wasn’t what I meant”… but then we have to listen to suggestions, confront the text, and think about what to do differently if possible.
Or keep it as is and take the consequences.
So, grab a teacup and a biscuit, and let’s play!
What are some examples of gaslighting the reader that could be interrogated, flipped, shifted, or dropped? What are some things that inadvertently show the opposite of what story we’re trying to tell? Dig in….
What do we see as readers?
The text may tell us one thing, but repeatedly shows us something else. So you as a writer can tell us something ceaselessly, either within or outside of the text, but unless we see it happening for ourselves, it’s dubious. You can have other characters marvel that your billionaire cowboy-CEO MMC is such a total workaholic. He’s so dedicated to his job! Yet if he’s never actually working, certainly not as much as someone who heads a major firm or corporation needs to, but instead spends all his time following the FMC or whisking her away on luxury fuck-fests, that “workaholic” reputation doesn’t carry much weight. We may start to doubt other elements of his character, even the entire plot, based on the unreliability of this lack of “workaholic” evidence.
How many times does a FMC sigh that the MMC is “so kind, loving, funny, generous”? But have we as readers seen actual evidence of this? Have you as a writer demonstrated this? (When I do a more in-depth look at MMC gaslighting, I’ll explore what works as “funny” or not, but, briefly, if all we see him do is laughing at others’ misfortunes or, especially, the FMC’s innocent mistakes, that does not count as “a great sense of humor.”)
Does the text tell us that the MMC is “a true philanthropist who really cares about people”? Then we have to actually see him doing things, real things, that count as “really caring about people.” Billionaires throwing money at charity causes does not mean they really care about people. It usually means they care about big tax write-offs or currying favors. A rich white man having a token scene where he performs savior-like acts for poor/minority characters is also highly problematic, and would require more interrogation as an actual plot point for it to work.
But a well-crafted scene with the MMC showing different facets of his personality, genuine things, as the FMC (and the reader) gets to know him would be wonderful.
Both the main characters often get the “You’re so brave!” thing, too. Again, we have to see real acts of bravery. And generally speaking, him finally whispering “I love you” or her acquiescing to certain sex acts are not the pinnacles of bravery. It is not real bravery if the MMC threatens to do things, but doesn’t actually have to, either. “If that guy looks at you again, I’ll kick his ass!” “Just let them try to tell you that they won’t loan you the money, and I’ll ruin them!” “My blade is sharp and I am not afraid to use it!” Unless the bluster is backed up by real acts of bravery, it does not make the MMC a brave, bold hero. Another overdone “brave!” thing is when the FMC is a perpetual victim. She’s been kidnapped, sold into slavery, raped, married to an abuser, escaped with her child, forced to become the king’s mistress- I love a tough survivor FMC, but if she’s constantly having the worst hand possible dealt to her, it feels less like she’s brave, and more like she’s a butt monkey.
Another element of gaslighting the reader that I see often is when the FMC says of the brooding, scowling, stuff-smashing MMC, “That anger, his temper, it isn’t really part of him at all.” Wrong, FMC. Yes, it is. If we see it happening on the page, it is absolutely part of him. Don’t try to convince us (or yourself) that with a little love, he’ll be happy and cheerful all the time, and underneath it all is a tender heart of gold that cancels out his actual actions.
But gaslighting especially applies to the relationship itself.
How does the MC act when they’re together?
One of the biggest culprits I find in romances is that the relationship isn’t… actually… romantic. I don’t mean everything has to be hearts and flowers, happiness and rainbows. But is what the text shows, with words and actions, actually love? Romantic? Loving? Passionate? How do they act when they’re together?
How many times have we read about a couple who is supposedly so in love, OMG soulmates, passionately connected… and yet all we see them do is fight and fuck. We never see moments of real love, joy, or intimacy outside of the sexual encounters. They don’t laugh together. They don’t share loving little rituals that actually indicate their connection. They don’t do everyday things well together. They aren’t equals. They don’t seem to enjoy spending time together as people, as two individuals. They don’t act respectfully towards each other. Can you name one functional, healthy, empowering, and/or mature thing that they do as a couple?
Hint: you should be able to name several, in fact.
Is the “romance” token action? Or consumerism? Is it something HE loves, but has no idea if SHE does? Is it them doing something luxurious because he’s a bajillionaire? Is it always focused on HIM teaching HER something, either because he’s rich and powerful, or because she is unfamiliar with his life as a guitarist/bronc rider in the rodeo/Air Force pilot?
Or is it something personal or special, something that tells us about them and their relationship, how they are growing as characters and as a couple?
The romantic actions between a couple can quite revealing. If the MMC has his secretary order “a selection of flowers” or he calls the priciest jeweller [fill-in-the-famous-name-here] in town and asks for “Something lavish, the best you’ve got!” or if he asks his mother or sister to pick something out, and then presents said romantic gift to the FMC, what that really tells us is not “how generous and romantic!” but, rather, that the MMC puts little effort or real thought into his gift to her. That the cost is supposed to be the important thing, that she should be grateful for an expensive present. The thing to care about is that “it’s a ___ from ___!” But unless she has expressed a deep desire for something like this, or there’s a reason for it, all it smacks of is Shopping Porn, not a real connection between the couple. All the stuff you see with roses and fancy dinners and a sunset sail on a yacht and a picnic on the roof is nice, but unless it’s connected to something, it’s superficial… and makes the couple, the giver, looks superficial and careless, too.
Another popular romantic gift is the “I bought you this expensive couture dress,” or even “I got you a whole new wardrobe, baby!” thing. More often than not, the recipient of said generosity is a jeans-and-sneakers down-to-earth FMC who doesn’t like fuss, or feels uncomfortable all dressed up. This romantic gesture is meant to signal that she’s getting more comfortable with herself, her femininity, her sexuality. His money. That can be enough of a problem on its own, even. But what it actually smacks of overall is the MMC demonstrating “I want to change her into something more appropriate,” “I’m trying to turn her into a different kind of woman.” So yeah, the fantasy-appeal of the shopping spree, the makeover, all of that has been around in fiction for a long time… but once you get past thinking “Well, I’d love it if the man I was dating gave me his credit card and told me to go buy a bunch of expensive dresses that would turn him on!” it reads more like “She’s not good enough for him, she doesn’t fit into his world, she needs to be different for him to love her or for her to be accepted as his romantic partner.” It’s the opposite of romantic and loving.
The big, grand, over-the-top romantic gestures are not actually romantic if it’s not something the FMC thinks is romantic, or if it’s always centered on things the MMC loves to do, doing activities he’s good at (but she is a novice, so the better to constantly make her feel inferior), or always involves his family or group of friends or favorite settings but never hers. It actually reveals the MMC to be a selfish dick. So if the MMC whisks her off to surprise her by going hot-air ballooning because it’s one of his favorite activities and he wants to share it with her… but he has no idea if she’s terrified of heights and has never actually asked her if she’s interested in such an activity, that’s self-centered and not an act of romance and generosity at all. Actually, my brother does shit like this with his serial-monogamist roster of girlfriends all the time. He plans all of these big, elaborate, super-romantic surprises for his girl-of-the-year. He gets amazing tickets to go see his favorite band. (She has no particular love of this band or genre of music.) He takes her to his favorite seafood restaurant for the best lobster in town. (She’s not much of a seafood fan.) He surprises her with a romantic destination weekend of camping in the desert. (She hates camping. HATES. And he knows this.) He tells her he’s taking her out to dinner, then instead, surprises her with his stand-up comedy gig. (She’s hungry, there’s no food served, and she wasn’t expecting there to be a three hour activity before dinner.) He buys her a puppy for her birthday. (She doesn’t have time to train and care for a puppy.) There’s no reciprocation, either, so it’s not like he’s offering “You share your favorite outdoor activity with me, and I’ll share my favorite with you.” He flat-out refuses to participate in the activities she prefers, or will do it once with an air of supercilious sacrifice. And then he does the whining about “but I do all these nice, expensive, fancy things for her and she doesn’t appreciate it!” Well, you’re not doing them for her, you’re doing them for your own enjoyment. You know she doesn’t like ___ and you forced it on her anyway, and pretended it was a gift for her. So that cancels out the “romantic” thing.
Apply to fiction, and you have the same effect.
The emotional and psychological (or even just logistical) underpinnings of a romantic gesture matter, too. A motorcycle ride up the coast might be incredibly romantic… but if your FMC has expressed that she is terrified of motorcycles and the MMC insists she “face her fears” by doing it anyway, that is not romantic. That is borderline abusive. If the MMC enters the FMC’s home without permission when she’s not there to deliver that antique table she admired or start remodelling her bathroom for her, that is not romantic. That is criminal. If he replaces her car with an expensive new one, and has her old car taken away without her permission, that is stealing. And if he does the big romantic gesture in front of the FMC’s family, friends, or co-workers, that is not romantic. That is manipulation.
It gets even worse if you see the gesture is used after to rationalize unhealthy behavior or realistic doubts. “He just kinda raped me… but he bought me a whole new wardrobe/took me to Belize/wines me and dines me every night, so that can’t really be what happened!” Or if he insists that she accept said gesture/gift, despite her telling him no, even outright refusing it. Yikes, no, not romantic.
Don’t inadvertently gaslight the reader by acting like “Here, expensive!” or “Here, this is what all chicks love and fantasize about!” is proof of deep, real love, and if the reader doesn’t see it, then the reader is the one with the real problem. A romantic gesture (in fiction and IRL, for that matter) can and should express the personal connection between the couple. It should show the MMC’s awareness of and respect for who the FMC is. It should show the FMC’s enjoyment of more than just sex or the trappings of the MMC’s riches/Montana ranch/Harley. It should honor the giver and the recipient, display insight, move their relationship forward as much as anything else.
How does the MC act when they’re not together?
Is he constantly seething with jealousy, sure that she is with some other man, betraying him? Is she always heartbroken and sobbing or terrified that he is with his much prettier ex-girlfriend? Are her only interactions with other friends/family centered on talking about her relationship and how wonderful the guy is? (This goes even beyond the whole Bechdel test thing, but that’s part of it, too.)
Do they literally have nothing else going on in their lives that isn’t affected by the love interest? That ain’t healthy IRL, and it can make them flat characters in fiction. Show them as functioning adults, so their relationship and attraction to each other is believable.
You certainly don’t have to include entire scenes that have nothing to do with the romance plot; in fact, romances usually have to prioritize the action of the romance over anything else. But it’s still possible to let your readers know that your characters have other activities, friends, responsibilities. “She had managed to focus on two development meetings, five conference calls, and eighty-seven emails, but now, walking home from work, the feelings all came flooding back.” “As he drove to the pool, his mind wasn’t on today’s game, but….” “Come by after two. I’ll be back from visiting my parents then.” Develop them as people so we care about them and what they do together. Don’t just play with two dolls-characters acting out a whole bunch of sexytimes scenes.
What else might accidentally show one thing even if we’re trying to tell another? I’ll keep the kettle on, and we’ll continue with Part Two….