Welcome to the Show, or Coming up from Telling

The weather’s changing, finally, and something about the spring makes me want to take a detour from my usual editorial fare into the realm of fiction. Today, I feel inspired to take on the eternal struggle between telling and showing. I can’t promise you I’ll have all the answers, certainly, but I can at least give you a brief look at how I like to grow the show out of the tell.

Allowing something to blossom until it practically emerges from the page is not a terribly complicated process, but it does demand some time and attention. That’s okay. This writer’s life isn’t all wine and roses. (In fact, I have yet to receive any roses.) The one thing we can count on is hard work followed by hard work and rewarded by more hard work. We just have to love the work.

Let’s get to it, then. This is my route to showing from telling.

Get down to what you’re actually saying. So much of telling is the result of a writer’s not really knowing what he’s trying to say. You may have to dig underneath a few layers of telling to get to your substance, the emotions underneath the surface, the action pulling the reader forward, and the center of the characters involved. You may find it useful to print out a few pages and slice away the useless layers with a pencil. Take your time.

Once you arrive at what you’re saying, focus on that idea for a couple of minutes. What should the reader see here? What experience do you mean for the reader to have? Hold this idea, this concept of what the moment should look like to us, in your mind for a second. Take a few notes about this, but bear in mind that this vision we see is the result of your work – but it is not the goal of your work.

Enter the world of your story for a second. Go all the way in. Use meditation if you have to. Once you’re there, consider what you were telling before. Let’s say your character’s angry. Ask yourself first, “What does angry look like?” Is it the contraction of muscles? Is it the loosening of one’s stomach? Is it swallowing hard? A raised voice? Stiff pacing back and forth? What does anger look like? What would you have to see to arrive at the conclusion that this person or that person was angry?

Now ask, “What does angry look like for this character?” Is he the sort to raise his voice? Does she bury it under excessive pleasantries? Is he tart and sarcastic? Does she clench her jaw? This matters. You’re not showing me you. You’re showing me what’s in the story. Describe this first, with no concern for what it sounds like. When you have finished this entirely, go back and freshen the descriptions, scrubbing out the worn and tired expressions and making sure everything is true to that character. Try to keep it fairly uncomplicated (unless that’s true for the character). Showing is a pure injection of story into the reader. You’ll still have to make room for cadence and word choice, but generally, there’s not much room for chewing on extra words.

And finally, go back to what you thought we should see. Does that vision from the second step match your final result? If it does, that’s good. If it doesn’t, consider whether you’ve gone astray. You may not have; you may just have encountered a disconnect. That’s just something good to know about.

There is still a place for telling – it usually goes in places where the showing isn’t doing you any good. The little transitions from one event to another; a drive or a sequence of chores or errands. Showing everything is going to be overwhelming for the reader and for you. This is a hard life, yes, but it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Now go try some practice. You know how much you love hard work.

And would it kill you to send your editor some roses?

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

One thought on “Welcome to the Show, or Coming up from Telling

  • Lexi – This was one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp when I first started writing. You’ve broken it down into a handful of steps that are easy to understand and, with practice, easy to execute. Thank you for making such a difficult idea manageable. I wish someone had explained it like this to me ten years ago!

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