Monday, August 16, 2010

Writing Mechanics Monday: Show vs. Tell

We've all heard it before (and I've discussed this before):

Show, don't tell.

But what does that really mean? Why is it so important? And is it ever okay to 'tell'?

A lot of writers believe they are showing, when they're really just doing what I call 'fancy telling'. (Lots of details doesn't equate showing. It equates boring.)

Telling states facts. 

Showing engages the reader by allowing the reader to use all their senses and make their own judgement.

Don't tell me your main character is angry (because I won't care), show me what he DOES and says, SHOW me he's angry, let me (the reader) decide if I relate, and feel his anger.  Readers want to feel engaged, to see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what the characters are experiencing.
Okay, I've done enough telling, now let me show you.

Telling: When Gary broke up with me I was devastated. I'll never forget that pain.

Fancy Telling: I could live to be 100, and I'll never feel the agony and rejection I felt after Gary broke up with me in a letter. I was so devastated that I thought I would cry myself to death. I don't think I'll ever get over him. 

Showing: Even after Gary stopped doing the little things like calling me from work during the day "just to say hi", and letting me have the last slice of pizza, I still convinced myself it was the natural progression of a relationship settling into its second year. 
That soupy Monday morning, the air conditioner chugging away, I reached down to pick up the white envelope sticking out under my front door. I could smell him on the paper as I unfolded his letter.  The words blurred as I read the first sentence, my heart thumped in my throat, gagging me. I barely made it to the bathroom, where I curled my body around the cold porcelain for the better part of a week.
It's been 6 months since he dumped me in that damn letter and I still get sick at the smell of pizza or men's cologne.

(Obviously I just wrote these samples quick for this post. Please feel free to write better examples in my comments :)

Often writers think that adding more adjectives to the details is showing, but they're merely doing some fancy telling. Telling on steroids, if you will. The reader still can't SEE and FEEL the actions/behavior, they still can't judge and feel it for themselves.
Instead of just saying that a thing is "awful" or "funny" or "the most beautiful thing you can possibly imagine" and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should show actions, behaviors, senses with words (not lots of adjectives) that lead the reader to conclude for themselves that this thing is indeed scary or hilarious, etc.

Dialogue is a a tricky area. A lot of great showing can be done in dialogue, as can a lot of sloppy telling. My biggest telling pet peeve is: adverbs in dialogue tags

Don't: "You think you're so smart," she retorted dryly (or wryly...), "then you do it." 

Ack. This kind of telling/writing makes me want to pull my hair out. 

Do: "You think you're so smart," she cocked a brow and tossed the directions at me, "then you do it." 

TIP: During revisions, do a search for the word "was" in your document (for directions how, go here). You'll often find "was" used in telling.

When to tell, NOT show:

All showing and no telling makes a wordy, high-word-count, dull story.
Readers don't want to see/smell/hear every single detail of the 2-block taxi ride, or the sidewalk the MC walked upon, if it is of no real importance to the story. 
For pacing purposes, telling can sometimes be a good thing.

What an author must strive for is balance between showing and telling.

But how do you know when to tell and when to show?

-If you want to convey emotion and/or allow you reader to feel, you must show them. 

-Go ahead and tell the things that are of minor importance, but needed to  move the story forward:

Jane climbed out of bed, used the bathroom and headed to the kitchen to start the coffee.

We don't need to know anything more about this part of the story, so for pacing purposes, this bit of telling is fine, and quickly moves the story forward.

I hope this helps clarify the difference between showing and telling and when to do either.

By the way, I commit plenty of telling sins during my rough drafts, and that's okay. I'm just trying to get the bones of my story on the screen during that first pass. I spend a lot of time in revision turning the telling into showing (and sometimes the other way around.)



Susan Tiner said...

Great advice.

Telling: This download is taking forever. I think I'll go read Lola's new blog post.

Showing: Time left to download 19:21 Minutes, 1.46 of 2.33 GB downloaded so far despite shutting down all other programs. Oh look, Lola just put up a new blog post.

Conclusion: I have no idea what I'm doing but it's fun trying.

Christine Danek said...

Great post. I'm deep in my revisions and still finding all these mistakes. Lots of work to be done.

laurel said...

I like the rule of thumb to always show emotion.

My early drafts suffered from sins of showing! That is, I almost never used narrative summary to bypass the boring bits and dramatized everything. That can be problematic too.

Palindrome said...

As always, brilliant. I'm ever grateful for those examples that show and not just tell me what to do and what not to do. It was so frustrating to me a few years ago when no one bothered to explain it. Thank you!

Pat Tillett said...

Thanks for the tip! That's an easy trap to fall into. Thanks for the reminder.

Karen Strong said...

Great post, Lola.

I too have to flesh out the showing during revision. During the draft, I do a lot of telling. But at that point, I just want to get the story down.

salarsenッ said...

Nice examples and way to take on the subject of showing and telling.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now that's really breaking it down - thanks!

Sugar said...

This is very helpful.Thank you.. I am having a hard time with fancy telling..ugh!

Corinne said...

I've always, always, hated hearing "show more, don't tell" but your advice is really sinking in. It's only taken how many times for me to hear/read it? ;)

coffeelvnmom said...

Great examples! Thanks!

KarenG said...

LOL I love your example of "fancy telling." So very true. Great job!

Tessa Conte said...

Great post. You really can't say "show not tell" often enough...

I have it written in bright pink on a piece of paper I've tacked to my pinboard (right in front of me when I sit at my desk...). I still forget.

Tessa Conte said...

Great post. You really can't say "show not tell" often enough...

I have it written in bright pink on a piece of paper I've tacked to my pinboard (right in front of me when I sit at my desk...). I still forget.

Summer said...

A smile twisted the corners of my lips as the web page loaded. Some giggles, some sighs, and one belly laugh later, I caressed the book/shoe avatar. Did she like chocolates? Would she eventually stop taking my love tokens?

<3 (<---also showing)

Clarissa Draper said...

Great way of explaining what so many people have problems with. I think people tell because it easier and it is but it's also more boring. I think I'll mention this post on my Friay's blog post.
Clarissa Draper from Listen To The Voices

Theresa Milstein said...

"Fancy Telling" - you've coined a new term, Lola!

For your dialogue example, J.K. Rowling is notorious for doing this. She won't even let the words stand on its own. She has to explain nearly every single one with an adverb.

I think your examples are great.

Candyland said...

This is a priceless page of exampled info Lola! You should make it a permanent fixture on your side bar:)

Lisa said...

This is great timing as I'm editing my first draft. Thank you for the helpful reminders of what to look for.

Old Kitty said...

Ooooh thanks for the tutorial and the great samples of showing/telling in prose and dialogue!

I find I also tell on my first drafts - then pick them apart on re-draft - I think it's easy to have them (the telling) as pointers and then to expand on them (showing) later.

Great post, thank you lovely Lola!

take care

Melissa said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent!!!!

This is a great way to show us when to tell and when to show. You really hit the nail on the head with this one.

Summer Ross said...

This was a great post- I love your examples.

Saumya said...

This is amazing advice and the examples really help a lot!! Your posts are always so entertaining!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Nicely done. I especially like the description of fancy telling. ;)

Cheeseboy said...

I so needed to read this. Thank you.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post - telling is a necessity at times, but it's so much more fun to show!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Nice! We hear it all the time, but thanks for "showing" us the difference. I know, that was a groan-worthy comment.. Sorry!

Jeff King said...

Great point, I am still working on this every day.

aspiring_x said...

oh WOW! this was an excellent post! i'm going to have to try out that was search- and telling for pacing- excellent!

Carolyn V. said...

Great examples Lola! Showing vs Telling is difficult!

Alleged Author said...

I love this post! I looked everywhere for good examples of show vs. tell, and now I have them. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best, simplest explanations of this concept that I've heard. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Good post! The "telling on steroids" made me giggle.

On editing my drafts, I always find... adverbs in dialogue tags. There, I said it.

But I'm trying to get better. :]

Susan Fields said...

Great examples! I'm also guilty of adverbs in dialogue tags, but sometimes they just seem so right. :)

Elliot Grace said...

..."Show don't tell" is probably the single most glaring reason behind the massive slush pile at the corner of every agent's desk, or file cabinet, or knowing my luck, trash can.

And regardless if you're name's Lee Child, or Joe Blow, showing the story as opposed to telling it takes practice...lots and lots and lots and lots of practice.
...and I'm still practicing:)

You've spun a classic Lola!

Talli Roland said...

Great tips, Lola! Showing vs telling is always a tricky one. I do think it's okay to tell sometimes, though... in select places. That's my justification and I'm sticking to it! :)

Will Burke said...

Thanks for the example/explaination delivery, it really made it plain. this should be required reading for all writers at my stage of the game!

Samantha Bennett said...

Great post! A clear look and showing vs. telling. Way to show!

Lola Sharp said...

Have I told you all how much I love you guys?


*hugs and never lets go*

Shelley Sly said...

Well said, Lola! I agree we must show emotion, and show show show more than tell, but I'm glad you also mentioned that there is a time and place for telling in order to advance the story. Good to know when to use showing and when to use telling.

Okie said...

Great post....this is advice that we hear so often but is so rarely elaborated on properly. Thanks for a well crafted post illustrating this. :)

Sara McClung ♥ said...

Fabulous post my dear :) And man, a while back I found my old hs stories and holy cow. lol. ALL TELLING, I still crack up when I reread them!!

Vicki Rocho said...

I'm a recovering Teller. Hope to be fully cured someday!

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Is this a repost? I'm getting de ja vu! :o)

Are you a writer? Then you MUST enter this CONTEST!

Sheila Siler said...

As I read this post, my heart started to sink. Eight chapters of my children's novel will have to be gone through with a fine tooth comb. Did I tell or did I show?

Thanks Lola.

Kazzy said...

Very good tips. You are good at this stuff! :)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic tips and examples, Lola.

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Superb, my dear. Well stated. Love that you pointed out the notion of fancy telling. So often, people think it they pretty it up, that it makes the telling just as good, if not better, than showing. Ack is right.

Carol Kilgore said...

Sorry I'm coming so late to this great post. I'm revising my wip, which is still filled with lots of telling. I have a long way to go.

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

Fabulous article on Show/Don't Tell. I noticed in the current issue of Writer's Digest they are promoting a book on this subject. Showing and Telling author Laurie Alberts claims all showing and no telling is misguided advice. She agrees with you, Lola, that "good writing always requires both showing and telling. The trick is finding the right balance of scene and summary."

Hope your week is going great!
((hugs)) Nicole

Jen said...

Hi! Can I just say you're like so AWESOME! I love stopping by and learning new things, what I love more is stopping by again and putting the info to good use. Show vs. Tell is something I constantly struggle with so the tips are always awesome!!

Today's my blog fest, I'd love if you stopped by and guessed my character... you know, because you love me :)

Kimberly Franklin said...

Great advice here! Showing and not telling has to be made with a conscious effort on my part, but I'm working on it. :)

Julie said...

"Telling on steroids" Classic. :)

Great post! :)

Lola Sharp said...

Thanks friends. :)

Julie---you're my 400th follower!! :) I am honored to have you here.

Anonymous said...

It is always great to hear that other writers live by the adage: just get it down and then get it right -- or something close to that.

Thanks for the reminder that we writerly type struggle to make our stories live on the page just as wonderfully as they do in our hearts and minds.

Melissa said...

Love the examples. It makes perfect sense.

I'm sure I've heard a lot of fancy tellers give the same advice.


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Lola Sharp
My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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