Showing and Telling
Showing versus telling sounds simple, but for many it isn’t. Many writers when beginning their journey have Show, Don’t Tell scrawled across their manuscript pages.
By showing instead of telling, you draw the reader into the story at that moment letting them experience the scene. Your goal is to transport the reader to the world you have created. You don’t want the readers to know that you, the creator exist. A reader is more likely to suspend disbelief when they are in the character’s head.
A scene takes place in real time (at this moment), with a setting and a specific location, it will contain some kind of action, something that happens. What does this have to do with showing instead of telling? Everything.
Here is an example of telling:
She watched the man from the corner of the room and decided he was dangerous. Gathering her purse, she left as quickly as possible.
When reading the example you feel distanced. Ambiguous words also give an unclear picture of what is going on. The key words are she watched and decided. There is no description or verbs that show action in this sentence.
Showing takes more words than telling. Adding sensory details and action to show the emotion the character is feeling.
Rewritten passage of telling into showing:
She kept her gaze pinned on the man in the dark corner of the shabby bar. A shiver of fear ran through her as the man looked at her. When his jacket shifted, the outlines of a gun flashed.
Big trouble. More than she bargained for and nothing but her wits to get her out of this mess.
Gathering her purse and holding it close to her body like a shield, she slid out of the lumpy booth and headed for the door. She wouldn’t breathe easy until she was far away from this place that reeked of stale cigarettes, body odor and death.
Showing takes more words than telling. Showing puts the reader into the story. Telling distances the reader.
Here is the beginning of my story A Cursed Heart. Can you see how action, description and emotion are all blended together?
A Cursed Heart
By Keelia Greer
The time of Druids and Magic
This vision was different. No longer watching from a distance, she experienced his pain and anguish. Her muscles tensed, her fingers curled into fists against the consuming weight of the man’s suffering. His anguish bubbled over, scalding her in a hot wash.
“Come to me. With all speed...”
The words were rough, raspy and urgent. They echoed and repeated in Tani’s mind. His deep voice surrounded her in the vision, but what spoke to her soul were his eyes. She gasped and shivered from the intensity of his gaze.
She tried to move but could not. Tears slid down her cheeks at her inability to help him. Her training as Druidess had not prepared her for visions such as this—with all of her senses engaged, the feeling in all areas of her being heightened and magnified.
Notice that the words I used were concrete, not abstract. When editing don’t forget to watch out for qualifiers such as very, rather, quite, really, almost, just, slightly. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever use these words. It means you need to stop and see if there is a way to show instead of tell.
Words that categorize--awful, pretty, pleasant, nasty, delicious to name a few is fine for everyday speech but in creative writing, they don’t work.
When to Tell
Telling is used in scene transitions of time, viewpoint, or distance. It’s also used to establish setting or mood and for that hated word—synopsis. Telling compresses giving a tighter word count.
Recap of Showing and Telling:
* Show what is important, what is the focus of the scene.
* Use: Emotion, Action/action verbs, Dialogue, The Five Senses
* Eliminate Passive Verbs
* Avoid generalizations
* Show a bit of your research
* To tighten word count. Telling compresses, it uses less words.
* Transitions in time, distance or viewpoint
* Alert the reader of a piece of information that you don’t need to go into detail with, but is important to character or plot.
* Scene transitions
* Writing synopsis
I hope this post has helped clarify when to show and when to tell.
Tambra Kendall/Keelia Greer