Showing vs. Telling

So...it was requested that we write a post on showing vs. telling. Since this is one of the common problems I see when critiquing, I figured it would be a good topic for our blog. Here goes:

What's "Telling" and What's Wrong With It?
Simply put, "telling" is telling the reader something. The country was in turmoil. My sister has no manners. Angela is a lunatic. Things like these need to be explained in the story, so what's wrong with just telling the reader?

1. Telling usually explains everything to the reader right off the bat. There are certain venues where you want people to explain things as simply as possible: when they're giving directions or explaining a calculus lesson; when you're on the phone with your neighbor who never stops talking and LOST starts in 30 seconds. But in fiction, telling is kind of like talking down to the reader; it doesn't give him/her any credit. At worst, repeated telling says to the audience I'm not entirely sure that you're capable of getting the point if I write it with any subtlety, so let me make it really simple. At best, it's a sign that you, as the author, are unsure of your own ability to make yourself understood without just stating it outright. Neither message is one you want to send.

2. Telling oftentimes interrupts the flow of the story. Consider one of the statements from above: Angela is a lunatic. If the author has to explain this in so many words, she has probably stopped telling the story to do so. When she's done, the story will commence, but in the meantime, the pace has halted, stopping the reader's attention along with it--something else you don't want to do if you can possibly help it.


3. Telling doesn't usually draw the reader into the story because telling is flat: it doesn't include details, emotion, or anything unique. Do you know someone who's a really good storyteller? My husband tells great stories; granted, they're usually embellished for effect, but that's what makes them great—lots of emotion and hand-waving, little details, a smattering of completely made-up vocabulary to give it his own personal flair. When he tells a story, people listen and can almost believe that the story's happening to them. This is what we want to achieve in our writing.

What's "Showing" and Why Is It Preferred?
The alternative to telling is showing. It's telling the reader what you want them to know in a way that pulls the reader in and is far more interesting than simply stating a fact. Showing usually gets more information across, too.

Example 1: (I've used examples from my writing in this post not because I'm convinced of my own literary genius, but because every book I own is packed and buried in the guest bedroom. I apologize in advance.)
· Nerien jerked upright in bed and reached out, but only felt crumpled blankets and the heave of his own chest. He fell back and groaned into his pillow. Why? Why did he always wake up before the dream ended? (showing)

In this example, I could have simply stated that Nerien was frustrated when he woke up. But saying it doesn't evoke that emotion; it merely states it. Instead, showing how he felt draws the readers in, helps them to feel the character's frustration instead of just reading about it. Showing is also usually more active and immediate.

Example 2:
· It was a noisy river. (telling)
· The sturdy stone bridge had no railing. Dara stood at the edge, watching the gentle Supine River turn crazy and wild where the river from Frost Berth joined it. It was particularly loud just below, where a branch had become tangled in the grasses near the pillars. The water gurgled and choked around it. Or was it the branch that was choking? Dara touched the soft scars that marred her upper arm. She felt a certain kinship with that branch. She was often choking these days, but it wasn't water that squeezed her. (showing)

As this example illustrates, 'showing' isn't a technique used only for emotion. It really could be used in all areas of description, from describing settings and characters to explaining relationship dynamics to strengthening dialogue.

Okay, so that's telling and showing. But how do you identify the telling parts of your story and show them instead? Since this post is getting a little long, these questions will be answered in part two, later this week.

5 comments:

courtney said...

I have no idea why, but I LOVE reading people's takes on show vs. tell. It's probably a writing geek thing, but oh well. I just can't get enough! This entry was great. I can't wait for part 2.

Angela said...

Great post, Becca. Right now I'm re-reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and one of my favorite bits of advice about Showing Vs Telling is this:

"Telling your readers about your characters' emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show WHY your characters behave the way they do."

To illustrate this, they give an example: "You could tell a reader, 'Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust.' or you could show the room in a way that makes the reader recoil in disgust for themselves."

This book is a must have for any writer, so if anyone out there has not read it, I can't stress enough that you'd better run out and get it immediately. They adequately show how "You don't want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences."

There is a place for telling of course, but it isn't when the writer is trying to convey emotion. (My viewpoint as a lunatic) :-)

Becca said...

Courtney, I don't know about you, but the first time someone explained showing/telling to me, it was a HUGE lightbulb moment. I could see right off what a huge difference it could make in my writing if I could figure out how to implement it. Maybe that's why it resonates so much--not because of my stellar examples (surprising, I know), but because the technique is so important to good writing.

And I agree with Angela: if anyone hasn't read this book, go get it. It's awesome. :)

Donna said...

I knew there was a book out there that I needed but couldn't remember the name. Thanks for turning on the light bulb Angela! It's written down and it's something I'll read when I'm ready to set aside my first WIP before I edit it.

While I haven't read the next post yet, I just wanted to add that it's important to have a balance of the two. Too much showing and your work will drown in description. Too little and it'll be like reading stereo instructions. Balance it key.

Merc said...

Excellent article, Becca!

I too remember when I was starting out, I was so frustrated when people just told me "show don't tell" and never explained what that MEANT. They never showed me. ;)

Eventually some critters helped me out and it was one of those "aha" moments where I finally got it. :P

I did an article on a similar topic on Merc Rants... I'm going to link to this one as well, since you did such an excellent job explaining it!

~Merc

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