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SHOWING NOT TELLING REVISITED

May 19, 2021

            Recently, this subject came up on one of the forums. Since Showing not telling is a huge reason that some writers want to throw out the rules and write crap, I thought it was time to resurrect this article. It turns out, the original was one of my earlier ones, from back in 2011, September to be precise.

            While I may have got down to brass tacks with showing not telling since that original article, I cannot recall either the times nor other titles, so here you have it, the original. It’s slightly tweaked and updated, of course, for all you newbies to my site, and a refresher for you old timers, my thoughts on show not tell.

INTRO

            Show not tell.

            Geez, I used to hate those words!

            They were my nemeses, the curse of my writing existence, the Phoenix that carried me down in flames. For the longest time, I just didn’t get it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see or tell the difference between showing and telling. It’s taken years (decades now) to be able to notice the difference. I no longer get irritated when I hear those words because I realize how difficult it can be for a writer to recognize the concept, especially in the heat of creating. There used to be a commercial for Netflix back in the day where this woman told a character “Show, don’t tell” and I just wanted 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. 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’s nothing outright wrong with that, besides being a bit passive, there’s 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’s what you, as an author, needs 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 barged 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.”

            “I did yesterday.” Mary slapped the table. “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 the reader about something to a dynamic scene that showed the reader something.

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

            A few more examples.

            Ron was bored.

            Oh…kay…so what? You’re telling the reader Ron was bored.

            How about:

            Ron yawned, tapped his foot, then rolled his eyes. He stood and paced, sat again, then tugged on his hair. “I can’t stand this!”

            Now it shows Ron is bored.

            The storm raged on.

            This is a case where, depending on time and expediency, you could go from show to tell, depending on how necessary the more elaborate show is, versus, whether it’s needed or not.

            The winds continued to blow, lightning flashed, rain fell in huge waves that flooded the streets.

            How important is it to describe the storm, or is it just an aside to let the reader know something that was already described before?

            This is a case where showing is okay since the telling has already been done…maybe ad nauseum.

SUMMARY

            Show versus tell is always better for a more active story, but there IS some discretion. There IS a time and place for tell. If you’re a literary writer, in love with words, you can probably get away with more tell. However, if you’re an action-oriented writer, a commercial writer, then you need to get to the point right away.

            Showing and not telling is essential to keep the writer engaged.

            Happy writing!

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