Skip to content

SHOWING NOT TELLING

September 14, 2011

            Geez, I hate those words!

            They are my nemeses, the curse of my writing existence, the Phoenix that carries me down in flames. For the longest time, I just didn’t get it. No matter how hard I tried, I could not see or tell the difference between showing and telling. It’s taken years to be able to notice the difference. I still get irritated when I hear those words. There is a commercial for Netflix where this woman tells a character “Show, don’t tell” and I just want to slap her silly.

            Showing and not telling seems almost like a contradiction in a story. After all, you as an author are telling a story, right? Wrong! You are showing a story. As weird as it sounds, your job is to show a story, as much as possible. Now as hard as it may be to get your mind around this concept, well, at least it was for me, a story is a lot more interesting if it is shown through words than told through words.

            The best way I can demonstrate that is by an example.

            Mary went into the house and told Jane that there was something going on at the office and it creeped her out, but she didn’t know what to do about it. Jane at first, didn’t believe her, but after a bit of convincing, had to admit there may be something to what Mary was saying. They decided they should go back down there and check it out together.

            What you have is a bit of narrative where the author is telling the reader about something that transpired. While there is nothing outright wrong with that, besides being a bit passive, there is a big problem that many authors cannot see right off. The entire paragraph is a bit tell. This is where I used to get into trouble all the time. I couldn’t see it for what it was. I was describing something that happened, but what I couldn’t see was that I was being lazy and not turning it into something more active. That is what you, as an author need to watch out for.

            That paragraph needs to be shown. How do we do that? Instead of telling the reader what happened, turn it into dialogue and action. Make it happen in real time instead of something that happened in the past.

            Mary went through the door and faced Jane at the kitchen table. “There’s something going on at the office and it’s creeping me out. Scott keeps going in the back room and locking the door. He’s up to something.”

            Jane shrugged. “He’s always up to something.”

            “No, this is different.” Mary grabbed her shoulder. “Have you noticed how he looks at everyone lately? The way he smells? He has this gleam in his eye.”

            “I…” Jane squirmed. “Now that you mention it, he does seem a little off.”

            “Have you ever tried to go into that back room?”

            “Well, no. Not lately.”

            Mary slapped the table. “I did, yesterday. Guess what he did? He practically bit my head off. Sheila from accounting heard him too.”

            Jane stood and grabbed her purse. “Maybe we’d better take a look for ourselves.” She glanced at the clock. “He’ll be gone for the next few hours.”

            “I’ll drive.” Mary jiggled her keys.

            Notice the difference? It is much longer, but it went from a boring and mundane paragraph telling about something to a dynamic scene that showed something.

            Now for the tricky part. There is nothing wrong with telling in a story. However, there is a time and place for it. Telling should be kept to a minimum. When it is possible to show it, show it instead. You’ll have a much better story that way.

Advertisements
4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2011 2:28 am

    Phew — I thought I was the only one who felt violent at the mention of those words.
    For all that the literary world hates cliches, they sure do like to throw a lot of them around as advice. And the kicker is — as your blog piece rightly says — those obnoxious go-to phrases can actually make for some decently sound principles, when properly applied.
    Of course, the only reason I can stand you right now is that you showed what you meant instead of telling it. (:

    • September 15, 2011 2:05 am

      Deshipley,

      Welcome to my web site and thanks for the comment! Yes, I get very frustrated with showing and not telling. I’m getting better at telling the difference, but still struggle with it.

      Rock on!

      Fred

  2. Donald Riggio permalink
    September 14, 2011 5:20 pm

    As always, I enjoyed your post and your examples were right on the mark. HOWEVER, writers should ALSO be cautioned that having two charaters share a long exchange of dialog where they merely discuss some past action is another form of TELLING. I’d much rather see and experience the action first-hand rather than listen to characters talk about it. WRITERS: Don’t fear narrative and exposition.

    • September 15, 2011 2:08 am

      Donald,

      You are right. If the conversation goes on too long, it becomes just another form of telling instead of showing. Too much of a “good” thing??? There has to be a balance of narrative and exposition and dialogue or none of it will work well. Good call.

      Fred

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: