Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

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Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Sun Jul 20, 2014 2:08 pm

One bit of advice that almost all fiction writers have heard at some point is “show, don’t tell.” Those three little words have a lot of wisdom, and they are good advice…sometimes. However, there are times when it’s okay to “tell”—even times when “telling” is preferred—and this lesson will cover some of those times.

First, however, let me explain the “show, don’t tell” concept, and when it’s good advice for a writer to follow.

Here’s an example of “telling” the reader (I’ve used a similar example to this in previous lessons):

Caleb was a seventeen-year-old high school student who was angry at the world and defiant to his teachers.

And here’s a sentence that “shows” the same information:

Caleb slumped into biology class, punk music blasting in his earbuds. He slammed his book on the desk.

Both sentences are 18 words long, but the first one is dry and uninteresting. You learn the same things about Caleb in the second sentence, but you do so by observing Caleb’s behavior and drawing your own conclusions about him.

One more example:

It was 1928, and old Wilma Connor was worried about the coming winter. She wasn’t sure that she had enough wood for the fireplace. She walked to the icebox in her kitchen. There was only one small piece of ham there, and nothing else.

And here’s version #2:

Wilma put a piece of wood on her dying fire and looked at the tinderbox. Empty. She pulled a threadbare shawl around her bony shoulders and thought about the small chunk of ham in her icebox. When it was gone, what would she do?

Again, both selections have the same number of words, but the first one tells you that Wilma is old and poor, and even what year it is. The second selection allows you to see Wilma, to get inside her thoughts, and you can deduce the other facts based on objects in the paragraph (her shawl, the icebox).

Incidentally, one misconception about “show, don’t tell” is that showing will take more words, because it is more descriptive. While this is often the case, it’s not necessarily so. I’m a big fan of tight writing, writing that is not overly descriptive, and I believe that you can show without using long, descriptive passages.

Showing is particularly useful in characterization, as I’ve done above. You might want to go back through your previous writings and see if there are a lot of places where you’ve told your readers what emotions your characters were feeling, or what events were happening to them. See if there are ways that you can rewrite those passages to include more showing.

By the way, one of my pet peeves—and a prime example of telling—is when fiction writers include their characters’ ages (as I did in my first example). It’s rarely necessary for the reader to know a character’s precise age; usually a few words about their behavior (holding mama’s hand) or their dialogue (I was, like, totally into it…) or their clothing (orthopedic shoes) will show the reader what she needs to know about the character’s age. Ages aren’t interesting reading; save your precious words for something better.

So…Show, don’t tell is often very, very good advice. However…

There are times when telling is exactly what you want to do.

1. You don’t need to show, in great detail, every detail of the setting. Rooms, clothing, weather, the characters’ movements—that sort of thing doesn’t need to be constantly deduced by the reader.

Telling: Jan looked out the window—raining. She grabbed a jacket and ran for the car.

Showing: Jan saw tiny droplets hitting the window, heard a syncopated tappity-tap. She rummaged through the closet for something to wear—settling on a too-small denim jacket—then headed for the car with her head down, dodging the insistent raindrops all the way.

2. You don’t need to show when the pace of your piece needs to be brisk. The above example demonstrates this point, too. It’s raining, and Jan is running. No need to slow the narrative for all that showing.

3. Most importantly of all—you don’t need to show if you’re cultivating a writer’s voice in which sparse prose is what you’re going for. I’ve mentioned before that I used to write a blog called “100 Words” for which every post was a tiny story, exactly 100 words long. I had to be very precise in my word choices, and I didn’t have room for a lot of description. So there’s a lot of telling there, but I hope that it was still pretty good writing. Here’s an example of a little story that’s almost all telling:

When Emily was six, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. She looked over the edge, gripping her mother’s hand, and felt like she was falling.
When she was eight, she rode the Ferris wheel. She didn’t want to go up so high, but Sadie teased her. The wheel swayed at the top, and Emily upchucked on Sadie’s shoes.
Now she is standing on a high platform, buckled into a harness. She remembers the fear, but when the attendant says 1-2-3, she steps into the air. The bungee trails behind her, and her white hair whips in the wind.

(Yes, I know that I've included the character's age--twice--in that story. See point #4 about not holding tightly to rules--even rules I've set for myself!)

There are many writers whose voice tends toward tight, lean writing, and who can tell in a compelling manner.

4. Finally, I’m just not fond of holding too tightly to “rules” in an activity, like writing, that is more art than science. This may seem odd coming from someone who desperately wishes that people would stop putting commas after “but” and that they’d figure out when to use semicolons correctly. But I hope I’ve also conveyed in these lessons that rules are meant to be broken—by good writers. Too many people, I think, learned “show, don’t tell” and have adopted it as their mantra, when there are times when telling is not only okay, but preferable.

What are your thoughts, comments, or questions about “show, don’t tell?”
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by trudynewell » Sun Jul 20, 2014 3:49 pm

Hi - This time I have something to contribute. Shann recommended a great book to me by Amy Michelle Wiley - 'Bring Your Writing to Life'.I'd recommend it too.

Amy is great at explaining how to show/not tell. It is helpful. My problem is that it's far easier said than done!

Trudy

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Sun Jul 20, 2014 4:06 pm

trudynewell wrote:Hi - This time I have something to contribute. Shann recommended a great book to me by Amy Michelle Wiley - 'Bring Your Writing to Life'.I'd recommend it too.

Amy is great at explaining how to show/not tell. It is helpful. My problem is that it's far easier said than done!

Trudy
I've heard that Amy had that book, but I've not read it. Does it cover times when "telling" is preferable, too?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by trudynewell » Sun Jul 20, 2014 7:22 pm

No Jan - but her book handles things like POV, adverbs, adjectives, Dialog tags, Back story, sentence variety, as well as how to"show."

There are times it's best to tell - but I have a tendency to tell rather than show. I guess it's about balance. Trudy

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Come forth » Sun Jul 20, 2014 8:12 pm

Hi Jan. Great lesson and one I whole heartedly agree on.

I used to 'tell' too much, but when learning to 'show' I found I still needed to switch back to 'tell' sometimes; especially for pace and immediacy. It really does need to be learnt in balance -- which I'm still trying to do.

I also appreciate No. 4. and agree with your caution about learning the rules before you try and break them. Punctuation, as you taught me with the use of dashes, can really be an important part of the art and create a visually exciting paragraph for the reader.

I learnt something from your story about Emily. The age being mentioned twice was an important background setting to understand the 'white haired' lady overcoming her childhood fears. A lifetime shared in 100 words or less. Brilliant.

Thanks and blessings, Graham.
May we all get eyes to see and ears to hear,
A Revelation of His Word, crystal clear.
Admitting our need to be drawn in,
Less of self, more of Him.

My prayer for us all.
God bless us with the Revelation of His Word, Graham
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by GeraldShuler » Sun Jul 20, 2014 8:18 pm

Jan, thank you for this lesson. I have been trying to understand the concept of showing/telling for some time now. I wrote a short story on the general submissions called "The Good Life" that I think is almost entirely telling rather than showing. If you would, could you look at it and tell me which parts are showing and which are telling... and whether I should have used one or the other more?

Thank you in advance.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by swfdoc1 » Sun Jul 20, 2014 8:20 pm

Jan,

When I went to the Colorado Christian Writers Conference a few years ago, someone (I can't remember between two VERY accomplished folks, so I won't guess) mentioned another place where telling is better than showing. He said showing is better for scenes and telling is better for transitions between scenes. And I don't mean to use "VERY accomplished" as a trump card, such that you or your readers must accept his pronouncement; it's just the best credential I can give this one-of-two-people guru).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Sun Jul 20, 2014 10:41 pm

JayDavidKing wrote:Jan, thank you for this lesson. I have been trying to understand the concept of showing/telling for some time now. I wrote a short story on the general submissions called "The Good Life" that I think is almost entirely telling rather than showing. If you would, could you look at it and tell me which parts are showing and which are telling... and whether I should have used one or the other more?

Thank you in advance.
I'd be glad to--can you post a link, please?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Sun Jul 20, 2014 10:42 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:Jan,

When I went to the Colorado Christian Writers Conference a few years ago, someone (I can't remember between two VERY accomplished folks, so I won't guess) mentioned another place where telling is better than showing. He said showing is better for scenes and telling is better for transitions between scenes. And I don't mean to use "VERY accomplished" as a trump card, such that you or your readers must accept his pronouncement; it's just the best credential I can give this one-of-two-people guru).
I kid you not--"transitions" was supposed to be my point #3, but I went to get a snack and then I couldn't remember it when I got back so I skipped it altogether. Thanks!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by GeraldShuler » Sun Jul 20, 2014 11:38 pm

Sorry, Jan... I thought I had the link in. It is http://www.faithwriters.com/article-det ... p?id=80161

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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by RachelM » Mon Jul 21, 2014 12:51 am

I've been working at adding more "showing" to my writing, because it really needed it. Thank you for pointing out those times when it's better to "tell" too. It's another area where balance is needed to create beautiful art. I think that an expert is someone who knows when to break the rules and why.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Shann » Mon Jul 21, 2014 2:30 am

glorybee wrote:
trudynewell wrote:Hi - This time I have something to contribute. Shann recommended a great book to me by Amy Michelle Wiley - 'Bring Your Writing to Life'.I'd recommend it too.

Amy is great at explaining how to show/not tell. It is helpful. My problem is that it's far easier said than done!

Trudy
I've heard that Amy had that book, but I've not read it. Does it cover times when "telling" is preferable, too?
If interested, Jan, Amy's book is in the free read for review section.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Mon Jul 21, 2014 9:29 am

Shann, I couldn't find it there, unfortunately. I wonder if it's been removed.

I'd be interested in your thoughts on the lesson.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by Shann » Mon Jul 21, 2014 10:06 am

You're right Jan, she took it off just a bit ago. I know she has done workshops at the conference on it too. If I remember correctly, she does have a section where she explains where telling works.

My general opinion is much like most things in life, extremes aren't good. It needs to be balanced out. I do tend to encourage people to use active lines instead of passive one; although again, sometimes passive ones fit better.

If I come across a person new to writing and she does all telling, I'll push the showing more and give examples. I like to show them how to show. I'm working with someone who really struggles how to show, so I tend to encourage him more than I would someone else. One example I often give is She was hopping mad. Many people think that is a great example of showing. Different people, however, show anger differently. One might shout, clench his fists, and bounce from one foot to the other (a literal hopping mad :)). I do tend to encourage dialog. It's an excellent example of showing. Spit sprayed from his mouth as sweat plopped down his face. "I can't believe someone stole my car. Whoever did it, better pray I don't see them driving by."

You'd be surprised how often I'm asked to edit something like this: He was very mad that someone stole his car. He told the cop that whoever took it better pray he didn't catch him. The officer tried to calm him down and told him he should let the police handle it.

Just by adding actual dialog, it helps paint a picture. (I do tell people to paint me a picture. I like to feel like I'm watching TV when I'm reading, not listening to someone tell me the story over the phone. If you think about it, there's a huge difference between the two.

There has to be balance though. If one only shows, the reader doesn't get a brief rest to help process the story. If someone struggles with showing, though, I tend to encourage him or her to do it more often until it feels comfortable.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--TELL, DON'T SHOW? WHAT?

Post by glorybee » Mon Jul 21, 2014 10:53 am

Gerald, thanks for the link.

That story is stunningly unique, and except for the last few paragraphs, it really defies all the rules. Until I caught on to your twist, I was going to "ding" you for missing some transitions, but I soon realized that everything was intentional--because almost all of the story is taking place in the old woman's head.

Consequently, evaluating it for "showing" or "telling" isn't really important here. There were a few parts that seemed flat--like "telling"--but in those parts, it was necessary, because that's the way a person pretends with a Barbie doll.

I know that's not what you asked me to do, but honestly, I think you hit just the right note with this one. As the reader progresses through the narrative, first she thinks "What on earth...?" and then realization starts to dawn, and then there's a "Bravo!" moment at the end.
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