Author: Sandy Vaile
I’m here to demystify the old “show don’t tell” adage.
We’ve all heard it, but it’s often confusing and therefore difficult to apply to our own work. Telling has long been associated with bad writing, and showing with good writing. In my opinion, all of the techniques in your writing craft toolbox are dependent on one another, and it’s not possible to just learn them all and instantly be a good writer. Most of us learn one new skill at a time, and once mastered, it comes naturally to us. Showing and telling are just extra skills for your toolbox, and when broken down into bite-sized pieces, will become integral to your writing style.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and believe the focus is usually on showing, because telling comes naturally (we are story-tellers after all), but showing is layered with components, and so takes time to master.
So, if you agree that you are telling a story, then all you have to do is learn how to spot opportunities to tell better, tell with more emotion, or show the action. That doesn’t sound too scary, right? Personally, I think it’s time to update the old adage to something like: Show and Tell Effectively.
What’s the point?
The purpose of showing and telling effectively, is to totally emerge the reader in the story. It’s about creating the ideal pace, diffusion of information, and making the most of dramatization, in order to let the reader feel the emotional ups and downs of the character.
The appeal of SHOWING is that it lets the reader draw their own conclusions from the story, and connect more deeply with the characters. The reader gets to experience events through the characters’ actions, emotions, senses, thoughts and words. Showing can add layers to characters and scenes, adding a vibrancy that makes the reader feel like they’re actually there. It has a particularly powerful effect when there is an emotional upheaval for your point of view character.
It can be exhausting to be shown the minutiae of life for three-hundred pages, and it takes more words to get the same point across. In some cases, telling is more efficient. Being told information is never as exciting as discovering it for yourself.
Telling has a tendency to distance the reader, rather than making them feel a part of the story, because there’s a tendency to see the world through the narrator’s eyes rather than the character’s. Instead, let them experience the characters’ struggles and success, and discover information in an organic way.
Telling is a valuable tool to get necessary information across, to move quickly through time, or to move your characters from one location to another without showing the whole journey. The reader has no interest in seeing everything your character does, from brushing her teeth to eating every spoonful of breakfast. Use telling to move the story forwards in a succinct way and inform the reader of information they need to know.
When to show and tell
Remember, you don’t have to choose between showing or telling; they exist in harmony.
Make the most of showing:
Effective showing and telling techniques
One of the easiest ways to make sure you are writing actively, is to just show what’s happening. Pre-empting the action is a clue that you aren’t doing this, e.g. she started to ...
Labelling emotions can be a sign that you’re missing an opportunity to engage the reader with how the character is feeling, e.g. instead of saying “she was mad”, show her punching the wall or glaring at the offender.
Avoid information dumps, which occur when the story material is poorly integrated with the action. It’s one of the main reasons telling gets a bad rap, because it slows the forward movement of the story. Instead, make sure the information is necessary, and not just to the story as a whole, but right at that moment. Then integrate it in small amounts, at appropriate times.
Description isn’t about simply listing adjectives, but about adding meaningful and specific details that layer your scene/character development. Also, make sure you use words that support the tone of the story.
Employ all of the senses to create atmosphere in a scene—not necessarily all at once though.
Create fresh metaphors and similes to compare what’s going on in the story with concepts readers are familiar with. This is a great way to build on the tone of a scene.
Dialogue is an active way for your characters to interact with one another, and keeps things interesting. The best part about it, is that it reveals so much more about the characters than what they are saying, e.g. their attitudes and beliefs, upbringing, culture and personality.
Once you master the art of showing and telling effectively, you’ll be amazed at how it lifts your storytelling, and becomes part of your writing style. You’ll see opportunities to infuse it everywhere!
I hope you feel more relaxed about showing and telling now. Learn how to realise a balance between description and brevity that will captivate readers and won’t let them go through a developmental edit, where I can help you find opportunities for more active storytelling.
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication