Monday, November 18, 2013

Ten Writing Tighteners Series: Telling vs. Showing

Photo by teachingsagittarian

My first critique partner, the amazing Kelley Lynn, drilled me on "show, don't tell." Though I understood the peripheral of what this meant, there are nuances of the writing adage which took me a bit to fully understand.

The difference between telling and showing

Writing is generally about two things, information and/or story. This post is geared heavily toward fiction, though some of it might also apply to non-fiction. The first installment of the Ten Writing Tighteners Series was on Filters. In that post, I discussed how writers should help the audience experience what the characters see, hear, and feel—physically and emotionally. When done properly an author is showing.  

Telling gives information, showing brings the reader into the moment.

The driveway needs repairs.

The car bumped along the driveway, a jigsaw puzzle made from broken slabs of concrete with gravel filling the holes. 

In this showing example, the reader can actually envision what the driveway looks like, not just be told about it. Descriptions of the broken concrete and holes filed with gravel make it easy for the mind's eye to see.

My car went off the bridge.

 Photo by Steven Vance
When my foot slammed on the brake, a jolt shot up my leg to my hip. My eyes darted from the faded, yellow line to the rusted-out rail, too broken down to keep drivers safe. Scenery rushed past in a blur and the steering wheel bucked under my white knuckles as I tried to control the direction of the skid. Tearing metal pierced my eardrums, and then there was nothing but my heartbeat thumping away. The seat belt tightened against my shoulder and my ass separated from the seat. Oh, God, what do I do? One deep breath, and the air bag hit me, knocking my skull against the headrest. Intense pain radiated from my nose and my skin stings. Air is pushed from my lungs in a whoosh.

Showing allows the audience to experience breaching the guardrail, the pull of the seat belt tightening while rising from the seat, and the sting of the airbag deploying. The reader is even privy to the thoughts running through the character's mind in the quiet moment between leaving the bridge and impact with the water.

Telling is bland and clinical, showing is visceral and brings the reader into the actual moment being described. Granted, showing is more wordy, and sometimes that's not a good thing, but other times it's downright necessary. If the author wants the audience to fully enjoy the story he must bring the important elements of the story to life by showing.

Elements of showing

Strong Verbs

The English language is filled with synonyms. However, not all synonyms are created equal. Authors can use specific verbs to show what's going on in a scene. Using the right verb negates the need for adverbs, which a writer wants as few of as possible, and it helps keep the word count down.

Misha, my daughter Alex, & Ashlynn
She sat on the sofa.

She slumped on the sofa. (shows defeat or exhaustion)

She plopped on the sofa. ( could be carefree or playful)

She threw herself on the sofa. (maybe out of anger or frustration)

She fell on the sofa. (possibly because of being tired or disoriented)

By using specific verbs it's easy to get a clear image of the way she sat.


Details are key, ambiguity kills the prose—well not always, but more on that later.

Reading an entire novel filled with telling and little-to-no showing is akin to eating dried-out, unseasoned chicken. Dinner is served but not very appetizing. Showing is the juice and spice in the meat. It's what makes the mouth water as each morsel slides down the back of the throat to fill the empty spaces in our soul. 

 Photo by Cestomano
The storm was beautiful.

What makes it appealing? Could the reader's idea of beauty be different than the point of view character's? What if the POV character is a fiend who sees glory in destruction wrought by a hurricane? Or maybe a gray downpour is delightful to one person, but lightning bolts flashing across a canvas of tumultuous clouds does it for another. 

Showing lets the reader understand better.

Gnarled streaks of blinding light flashed in the distance, illuminating swirling clouds and transforming raindrops into diamonds.

Dialogue and action bring characters to life

Dialogue and actions are fantastic tools for allowing characters' attributesgood and bad— shine. Whether the character is a blockhead or a whizkid, shy or outgoing, classy or churlish, the dialogue and action surrounding it can show the reader, so the author doesn't have to tell them. Sprinkling these things in as the story is told is often the best.

Here's a conversation from my latest book, SECRETS I KEEP, between the main character, Lily, and her aunt, Cynthia: 


Cynthia slumps on the sofa, eyelids at half-mast. She looks so much like Mom it hurts.

“Cynthia, we need to talk.”

“Not now. I’m too tired.”

I straighten my back and force myself to stand up for Sophie’s sake. “Too bad.”

Cynthia scowls, sending me death glares.

Kelley's 'pirate' boots.
“You buy new boots instead of paying the bills? And then you decide to take off for days without telling me? Calling me? I thought you were dead in an alley somewhere.” Oh, God, I sound like my mother.

I pause and she jumps in. “Well that’s just tough shit. I’m a grown up, so what I do is my business. If I want new boots, I’ll buy new boots.”

“But you left Sophie by herself, with no food in the house and no electricity. What’s wrong with you?” Stopping, I take a deep breath. I can’t believe I’ve let her reduce me to yelling.

“Wah, wah wah. So what if you were a little hot for a day? She’s fine and you figured out how to solve the problem, so consider it a lesson. It’s good for you to know how to take care of yourself. Time to grow up, Lily.”

The dialogue and actions in the above passage reveal important details about both characters. Lily doesn't usually stand up for herself, but she does it for Sophie even though it makes her uncomfortable. Cynthia is irresponsible, the text doesn't tell the reader this in those words, but shows it when it's revealed that she spent money on shoes instead of paying debts. 

When telling should be used

Any author in the writing game for even a short length of time has heard the old "show, don't tell" adage. It's good advice, great even. However, like all areas of life, too much of a good thing is not always a good thing (I know, I know= #cliche'). Sometimes it is actually better to tell instead of show

Wait! Say what? But...but...but... YES, that's what I said. There are times it is best to tell the reader rather than show them what's going on.


 Photo by object...

Don't be a drag

There are some things the reader just doesn't want to experience in real time, it would be a real drag. A good rule of thumb I use for my own writing: when it's something I'd want to skip or skim in someone else's book, I do the same in my own. If the information is necessary for the reader, I skip it or gloss over it using telling, instead of boring my readers with too much showing.

Awesome book!
I'll use my good friend, Lizzy Charles' book Effortless With You as an examplewith her permission, of course. 

Lizzy's book features Lucy and Justin working together at their summer job, painting houses. How engaging would it be if Lizzy had shown every single aspect of her story, right down to watching the paint dry? Yeah, umno. But not to worry, Lizzy would never do such a thing, she's got a fabulous sense for when showing is a must and when it's just not the best idea.

Telling during intervals

Intervals are periods of time between events, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. If there's a passage of time in the story, but nothing really relevant to moving the story forward is happening, it might be best to just tell that time has passed. 

Two months later, he...

After finishing the shopping, I...

Later, we...

Bridging scenes

Condensing the portions of the story that bridge scenes are often the perfect place to employ telling and save the showing for when it has merit.

 Photo by nickweinrauch
The following example is from the rough draft of my work-in-progress, D2: DESPERATION—I did say ROUGH DRAFT, so no judging. ;)

It’s hard to believe we’re, on the boat Nathaniel bought, with money no one knew he had. When I said we needed to go out to sea to get to the wormhole, he just nodded and the next day, boom, we had a boat. I asked where all the money came from and he just shrugged, saying, “I’ve got money I haven’t spent yet.”

The information needs to be told, but rather than go into a full blown back-flash, unnecessary to move the story forward, I spent only three sentences on it, rather than three paragraphs or three pages.

Showing weaves together the characters' experiences for the reader. Surroundings combined with emotions, how the characters deals with those emotions, and the action played out before the audience's eyes like a movie. Telling, on the other hand, gives important information, but not to the detail that will slow the pace of the story or bore the reader. 

I've barely scratched the surface on telling vs. showing. How do you balance your telling and showing? Do you have certain key words or phrases you search on to check for too much telling? Share with other authors in the comments section below. Here are some more in-depth articles, they're worth the time to check out.

This Itch of Writing Showing and Telling: the basics
Colorado Spring Fiction Writers Group Creative Writing 101: Show vs. Tell
Read, Write, and Edit Show vs. TellMy Take

If you found this post helpful, please share it on Facebook and/or tweet about it on Twitter. I'm trying to grow my readership, so please become a member. There are four post left in the Ten Writing Tighteners Series. Want to receive them directly to your inbox? Just follow by email. 

Ten Writing Tightener Series will include
1. Filters 10/14/13
2. Dead-weight Words 10/21/13
3. Echoes 10/28/13
4. Sentence Structure Stagnation 11/4/13
5. Redundancy 11/11/13
6. Telling vs. Showing 11/18/13
7. Voice Not Character Appropriate 11/25/13
8. Brevity Blunders 12/09/13
9. Head Hopping 12/16/13
10. Underestimating the Reader 12/23/13

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