Showing vs. Telling
If you've been a writer for more than two minutes, you've probably already heard the maxim "Show, don't tell." But what does it mean?
Since I'm doing a webinar on the subject on Monday 18th February (8pm South African time), I don't want to give away too many secrets, but I am going to give you a few tips about what it is, why it's important, and how to spot it in your own writing.
If you want more in depth information on how to rewrite your scenes using more Showing, the webinar costs only R100 for South Africans, and $10 for international writers. There are just 4 places left at this time. Email me on this link for more information.
What is Telling / Showing in writing?
Sure, we call what we do story telling, but the best stories we read aren't the ones that are narrated to us, but the ones we live into, as if we are there, right beside the characters.
As writers, how do we achieve that affect? We remove ourselves completely from the picture. We write as if the reader is inside the character's head, urging the reader to forget that there is an author telling them the story.
When the reader lives into the story, we have succeeded at Showing. When the reader is reminded of the author's presence, then the writing style is more Telling.
Why is it important to Show rather than Tell?
Why isn't Telling a story simply enough? The answer is one of emotional distance. The best stories are ones that make us feel, and it's hard to feel when we are standing at a distance from the action. It's the difference between watching a news report in which a reporter stands facing the camera, telling us about the storm raging behind them, and watching a scene in a big budget movie in which we experience the storm with the characters. Removing the reader a step away from the main POV character, we increase the reader's emotional distance, and prevent them from connecting with that character. Which is why we usually hold Showing up as a good thing, and Telling as a bad thing.
How do you recognise Showing and Telling in writing?
Example of Telling:
Just another few metres, Mary thought. She knew that she still needed to climb another few metres before she would reach the top of the sheer cliff face and safety. She kept climbing, moving slowly and steadily from one foothold to the next, though her arms ached and she felt exhausted.
Example of Showing:
Just another few metres. Mary looked up the sheer cliff face, at the few remaining metres above her head. Her arms ached, but she kept climbing, moving slowly and steadily from one foothold to the next. She could not give in to exhaustion now. Not until she'd reached safety.
Notice how in the Telling extract the narrator tells us what Mary is thinking and feeling, while in the Showing extract, those thoughts are immediate and without explanation?
Showing also involves a great deal more detail, adding texture, thoughts, senses to the scene to enable to reader to visualise themselves inside the scene.
Example of Telling: It was autumn.
Example of Showing: Leaves crunched beneath her feet, a carpet of red and gold and decaying brown.
When is Telling a good thing?
But there are times when you do want to Tell. As you can see in the autumn example above, Showing slows the pace down, absorbing the reader in details, requiring more words. But there are times when you don't want to slow the story down, when you need to move quickly between scenes or bridge a gap,or give information, and these are the moments when you need to employ Telling.
Example: The next day, after she'd collected the photo album from her mother, Mary boarded the plane.
Instead of showing us the visit between Mary and her mother, the author glosses over this to jump to the next scene. The reader assumes that the album is important to the story, but that we don't need to waste time in a scene that offers no other value to the reader.
Telltale signs that your writing is more Telling than Showing
Do you find yourself explaining what the character is thinking and feeling? Words like 'she knew / he thought / she saw / he decided' are clues that the author is placing yourself between the character and the reader.
Do you use adverbs to explain character emotion rather than the character's actions? Adverbs are a telltale sign of Telling and should be used sparingly. Weak verbs that require adverbs to clarify them are another sign.
Do you use all the senses and details in your descriptions? Vague descriptions are less immersive for the reader.
Have you received rejections from editors and agents that say that they did not connect with the characters? While this could also be a result of weak characterisation, by using more Showing in your writing you can enable the reader to live more deeply into your character's experience.
How to write in a style that is more Showing?
Remember I said at the beginning of this post that I didn't want to give away all my secrets? If you want the answer to this question, sign up for my webinar!