You’ve probably heard the age old warnings about showing vs telling at least somewhere along the way. But this issue really is a huge one, and it’s important to stress, so I thought I’d post 2 in my writing tips series on showing and telling.
Without further ado…
I’m not talking about show and tell in the sense of the elementary school event where kids used to bring in their pets (no longer allowed by the board of education 🙁 ) anyways. I’m actually talking about showing, and telling. And these are two completely different things, especially when you look at writing.
So let’s dive into it.
What is telling?
Well that’s easy. It’s the author stating something that has happened.
ex. “It was raining outside.”
Telling is basically exactly as it sounds. You tell the reader exactly what happens, or why something happens.
So how useful is it?
Well…. honestly it depends on the effect you are going for. Generally speaking, telling ends up estranging a reader from what is happening by putting you, the author, in between the reader and the story. It’s like you talking to a friend during a movie. You’re narrating, explaining, even biasing your facts possibly based on what you believe/think.
This can be a bad thing, since you want to immerse your reader in your story. However, it can also be a good thing in certain sections of your novel, or for different purpose depending on what you want.
So what is Showing?
Showing is again, a lot like it sounds. It’s getting the same message across as telling, but by using details and facts that the reader can put together, instead of telling them blatantly what is going on. It’s like dropping hints and clues, and letting them figure it out themselves.
Where “It was raining outside.” was an example of telling, this is an example of showing to the same effect, “Raindrops thundered on the roof and rushed through the drainpipe, creating growing puddles outside.”
Well it’s obvious that it is raining, but notice how this was never stated?
Generally showing allows a reader to get more invested in a novel, as they figure things out themselves, and observe the world exactly as it is, instead of listening to the author narrate. You are no longer nagging in your friend’s ear at the movie. Now you are sitting back and letting them watch and figure things out themselves.
When should I use one or the other?
There are benefits and downfalls to both methods, for sure. Generally, my rule of thumb is that a piece of writing is more investing if it has a good deal more showing in it than telling. As I said above, this allows the reader to really get involved and experience the world you’ve created.
However, I must greatly caution you against being wordy.
Don’t be a thesaurus writer!
No one enjoys not being able to read a sentence in a novel because every other word they have to look up. If you can use a simpler, more vibrant word in place of a long winded one that will distract the reader, then do it! Simple words are better, period. You do not…. DO NOT want to distract the reader. You want them invested. And as a reader, you probably know this too. No one likes not being able to get into a novel.
For this reason, when showing, you have to be very careful to keep your descriptions beautiful and vibrant, but not long winded and distracting.
Because showing can easily ensnare writers into becoming long winded, often I have heard authors just to say to avoid it all together. It’s that bad to fall into that habit. However, showing is such a crucial part of a story, so try to
work it in, but be careful how you do it.
No one really needs to hear a page and a half about how the golden sunlight rose over the crest of the rolling hills which had lush green grass and were speckled in the lightest flowers that had petals that were this such and such colour of the rainbow, and a light breeze danced through the blades of grass, whispering secrets and sweet nothings.
Great. That’ll make an awesome poem, and would have worked well in a novel a couple years back in Jane Austen’s time, and the age of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Try to sell something like that in a YA novel today, and I guarantee readers will grow bored and skip it.
Try to keep it concise.
Still steer away from the boring “the sun was rising”. But instead of going into a long winded description, choose your words carefully and craft a shorter stronger ‘showing’, like, “The sun splashed over the hills, signalling the break of dawn.”, or “The lilies that commonly grew in the meadow turned towards the east as light spilled over the horizon.”
Even then, those sentences are flowery descriptions, and just spur of the moment things I wrote (in other words, don’t think they’re amazing inspiration or anything, they’re just examples) but this sort of description still gets the image out, but it is only a sentence instead of a page and a half, and it uses vibrant verbs and ‘showing’.
In conclusion, aim for showing more than telling, but don’t use too much of it, or readers will grow bored and bogged down by the writing. Keep concise if you can.
It’s a balance, really. You want to stay out of your writing and just show, but you also don’t want to get too wordy. Again, like anything with writing, this takes practice. And I am no where near done learning myself.
Best of luck!