Wednesday Writing: Show vs. Tell

A lot of beginning writers have trouble with show vs tell. Some of my early rejections, ones that weren’t straight up forms, mentioned the problem. I see in various forums and critique groups that I wasn’t alone. The question keeps coming up.

Conceptually, it’s not tough, though it can be tough to apply to one’s own writing without assistance. After all, the basic mindset for the average person when verbally telling a story about what happened in their day resorts to telling the story rather than trying to show it. And when people starting putting imagined stories down on the page, they use the technique they’ve been using all their life. And quickly find it doesn’t work for a reader at all even though all the ideas that seemed so interesting in the writer’s head are on the page.

But they are lifeless. And it’s showing vs telling those ideas that brings them to life.

In its most basic form, telling provides a rather dry explanation while showing gives details which allow you to figure out that explanation on your own.

TELL:

J was a bad writer.

SHOW:

Typos littered J’s manuscript and he knew it. Couldn’t be
bothered with it. That was for editors to deal with. He just needed to finish up this character description to make his page count for the day so he delved into the file on his PC with passages culled from other’s books, searched for “blonde” and quickly found a paragraph from a Koontz book that worked. He adjusted the name, and a word or two, then saved the file. Time to relax!

When you read them side by side you quickly notice that showing takes more words, and the tell version is just a summary. You get the same info, but the first TELLS the reader the answer while the latter SHOWS a series of details, thoughts, and actions which allow the reader to draw the same conclusion.

Of course, there are times when summary (or telling) are necessary and even important, mainly in transitions between the interesting events where a clean break might disorient the reader:

I went home and collapsed into bed.

The office was ablaze when I arrived, licks of flame and smoke pouring from the broken windows.

That’s pretty abrupt. You could solve it in several ways, but summary telling is one choice since nothing interesting happened in the interrim.

I went home and collapsed into bed.

The next morning I woke, showered, and headed immediately into work without breakfast. The office was ablaze when I arrived, licks of flame and smoke pouring from the broken windows.

The reader doesn’t really get much evocative detail on the process of waking up and getting dressed, but it’s not germaine to this particular story so it’s fine to breeze past it.

The rule of thumb is show all the interesting stuff, and skip or tell the uninteresting stuff. Since the telling is designed to quickly speed past the uninteresting parts it should be a very small percentage of the overall story, let’s say 10% just for sake of example though you shouldn’t be counting or anything. Beginning writers often have 75%+ or even 100% telling and that variance makes for very easy to reject fiction for editors and agents (and readers!)

Another place where novice writers get tripped up is giving history lessons about their setting rather than letting the character (and by extension the reader) experience the detais, or summarizing their character’s actions and emotions at critical times.

No one wants to read:

Then there was a huge fight. It was crazy. You should have been
there.

Yeah, says the reader. I wish I was. It was your job to make me feel like I was and you failed.

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