Showing? Telling? I’m confused!

Blog_072715Show, don’t tell. Like “Don’t kill the cat/dog,” “Show, don’t tell” is a biggie in the big, imaginary BOOK OF WRITING RULES.

Generally, I don’t like rules (except when it comes to grammar :-)). When it comes to phrasing and descriptions and point of view and all the other elements that make a story compelling (which is one of our buzzwords here at Edward Allen), I take each story by itself.

Different voices work better with different styles or even genres. And sometimes breaking rules is more interesting.

But “Show, don’t tell” is probably one of those rules I like. I didn’t always, though.

When I first started writing fiction, that phrase confused me. To me it seemed a baseless axiom that some literary editor had put in place arbitrarily but was repeated so many times, it became sacrosanct in the BOOK OF WRITING RULES. (You know, like don’t end a sentence with a proposition. That’s a myth…and it’s also another blog post.)

It took me a long time to understand the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I took classes and seminars, struggled with worksheets until I was cross-eyed. In the end, reading examples, lots of them, did it.

So if you struggle with understanding showing vs. telling, here are some examples for you.

Roseann Biederman writing for Writer’s Digest starts off with a couple basic rules (Here we go again!): Be brief, avoid info dumps and clichés. Okay, I’m with her there.

But her best piece of advice: If you’re wondering whether you’re showing or telling, ask yourself the following: Can the camera can see it?

Example: Urlandia was a peaceful realm. Peasants and nobles alike lived in harmony despite the occasional bout with famine or invaders from the neighboring kingdom of Dum. There were heroes and cads, pirates and tavern wenches, and in all, their lives were good.

Okay, aside from this being deadly dull, is it showing or telling? Let’s load up the testing gun and fire: Can the camera see it?

Your mind might have conjured up an image of a fantasy countryside with green meadows, vast forests, and castles with pennants flapping in the breeze, but how could you have seen “the occasional bouts with famine”? How could you see that their lives were good? You couldn’t. You weren’t shown any of this—you were simply told. And it probably left you feeling a little sleepy.

Colorado State University has a quick and efficient tutorial on showing vs. telling, including a set of sentences to rewrite. Give them a try!

Example:

Vague: He was an attractive man. [Attractive in what ways – his appearance, personality, or both? Can you picture him from reading this sentence?] (Editor’s note: There’s that “camera” again!)
Specific: He had Paul Newman’s eyes, Robert Redford’s smile, Sylvester Stallone’s body, and Bill Gates’s money.

For a lengthier, in-depth study, including excellent examples of why and when it might be better to simply tell, check out Scribophile’s “The Show versus Tell Debate” by author D.M. Johnson.

Favorite quotes:

The act of showing is a demonstration or dramatization of how something is done, how something happened, how something appears, or what something feels like.

Telling, in its simplest form, means a concise statement. The grass was soft and green.

Questions? Comments? Please let us know. We love to hear from you!

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.