Is it a rule that your fiction writing should always “show” and never “tell?” If so, then how do you get rid of the “telling” in favor of the “showing”? And if not, then how do you know when to use which?
Jay posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How would you define the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’? I hear a lot from people talking about how you should never ‘tell’ the story, but always ‘show’ it, but I also see a lot of different definitions of those two terms. What are your thoughts?
Randy sez: Drat, Jay has asked a question that needs about 10000 words to fully answer it, and I’ve only got a few hundred here. Well, I’ll do what I can, but in the end, I’m going to have to refer you to my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, for a lot of the details. (Of course, there are other books that deal with this topic, but tragically, none of those other books were written by me.)
The big problem here is that editors will often tell you “Show, Don’t Tell,” but they just plain don’t have time to show you what they mean. I believe that “showing” can be broken down into five different techniques. If you master these five, then you know everything there is to know about “showing.” If you use any other techniques than these, then you are “telling”:
- Action. Anything your characters do, shown in real-time. Example: Jake swung the bat into the kidnapper’s head.
- Dialogue. Anything your characters say, shown in quote marks. Example: “Take that, you scurvy dog!” Jake shouted.
- Interior Monologue. Anything your characters think, whether a verbatim record of the thought or a mere statement of it. Verbatim thoughts are often shown in italics, whereas indirect thoughts never are. Example: And if you ever touch my daughter again, you’re dead. What were these idiots thinking, to mess with the daughter of a Navy Seal?
- Interior Emotion. Anything your characters feel. This is best done by showing direct physiological reactions which can be directly interpreted as emotions. Example: Another rush of adrenaline boiled up in Jake’s stomach.
- Description. Anything your characters can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Example: Two gunshots rang in quick succession. The bare light bulb in the basement exploded in a burst of darkness. Cold air rushed over Jake like a river. He smelled gunpowder, so strong he could taste it. The small red dot of a laser aiming device raced across the floor toward his feet.
If you restrict yourself to using only the five tools above, then you are “showing.” If you don’t, then you’re “telling.” Let’s look at how to “tell” the above snippet of a scene:
Jake whacked the kidnapper with a baseball bat and yelled at him, angrily wondering what kind of idiot he was. Somebody shot out the lights and then took aim at Jake.
Please note how much more efficient “telling” is than “showing.” Please note how much more vivid “showing” is than “telling.”
Now here’s an important point: You want to “show” the interesting parts of your story and “tell” the uninteresting parts.
Once in a while, I come across a manuscript that spends all kinds of time telling the character’s backstory and setting up a scene. Sometimes the writer will show in loving detail every single boring thing the character does on the way to the conflict. Then the conflict of the scene rushes past in a paragraph or two and then the writer spends the rest of the time winding the scene down in narrative summary.
Don’t do that. Spend your words on the high-conflict parts of your scene, showing it moment by moment, leaving out nothing. Then zip through the boring parts of the scene by telling.
There is a whole lot more to say about showing and telling, but it really doesn’t make sense for me to type all those thousands of words in again, when I already typed them into my book once.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.