In a recent edit, I pointed out some instances where I felt the author was telling versus showing. I included examples of ways to show what had been told.
She wrote to me and said, "I'm not sure I know how to 'show' rather than 'tell.'"
That's not hard to understand. After all, we use that mode all the time in conversations with friends.
"I was really surprised."
"I was so pissed."
"I was incredibly happy."
And it works. As a matter of fact, there are times in a novel when telling is the right thing to do. It's when you need to summarize an event because to create a scene for it would be the wrong thing to do in terms of pace, tension, etc. A common example is when you've shown an event in an earlier scene and then come to a place where your character needs to pass along what happened. Rather than drag your reader through the whole thing, blow by blow, you just write something such as:
April told May how June had told Julie where to shove her opinion.
That's a necessary and effective use of telling.
There are other times when it's the best thing to do. For example, when what needs to happen is so mundane that to waste words on it is to waste words. In one of my novels a character is talking on his cell phone. When he finishes with the conversation, I could have shown this:
Jake pressed the little blue phone on his cell-phone keypad to end the call.
Truly, that wasn't needed at all, and smacks of overwriting. What I really did:
Jake ended the call.
The reader can easily imagine ending a call with a cell phone if they've ever used one, and even if they haven't used one, they've seen it on television.
So what's so bad about telling in a novel? You "tell" a story, right? Not really. In a novel you dramatize. You need to do what I call "writing for effect;" you craft words that create an effect in the reader's mind. You can only do that through showing.
The effect your readers want is for what they read to trigger in them the sights and sounds and smells of what's happening in the story. They don't want approximations, they don't want a report, they want to experience the story's reality.
You spot telling by looking for simple declarative sentences that tell the reader something. The verb "was" is often a signpost of a telling statement.
Showing is using behavior (action, speech, thoughts) to illustrate or dramatize what the character is feeling/doing.
Here are some looks at telling versus showing that come from actual samples.
The scene: Anna is beat from a long, bad day at work, and she's spent hours at the hospital with her father, who has been unconscious for days. You want to give the reader Anna's physical and emotional condition.
Telling: Anna was physically and mentally exhausted.
Sure, you get information. You have an intellectual understanding of her condition. But you have no feeling for what Anna feels like, do you? To show that Anna is physically and mentally exhausted, you could do something like this:
Showing: All Anna wanted to do was crawl into bed and go to sleep. But first she would cry. She didn't think she could be calm and composed for another minute.
The scene continues: Anna's father suddenly wakes and thrashes around wildly, gasping, making monitors go wild. You want to give the reader Anna's reaction.
Telling: Anna was frightened.
Showing: Oh, God, what was happening? "Dad?" Why didn't he respond? "Nurse, do something!"
As you go through your manuscript, whenever you come across a "was-type" declarative sentence that simply delivers information rather than shows behavior, you probably have an instance of telling.
Your task then is to visualize the character in that state or situation. See the movie. As the author, you can also "hear" thoughts. Then show the reader the thinking or speaking or movement that illustrates what the reader needs to know.
Another example, one that deals with the use of adverbs.
Telling: He was furious when he stabbed the man.
Telling: He stabbed the man furiously.
I believe that the use of adverbs is merely a form of telling. Adverbs are approximations, mere stand-ins for action. As a result, they rarely give the reader much of an experience.
Showing: He plunged the dagger into the man's chest again and again and again, screaming "Die!" each time the blade stabbed into flesh.
One more example, this from one of my novels. The character has been working for hours under the Texas sun. I needed to let the reader know how he felt.
Telling: Jesse was very hot.
(Pause while I put my finger down my throat.)
Showing: Jesse felt like an overcooked chicken, his meat damn near ready to fall off his bones.
Another thing I often see is where a writer does a good job of showing, but then feels compelled to add a (telling) explanation. An example from a recent edit:
He wrenched her from the quicksand with a last huge pull and fell back onto the ground, panting as if he'd just won a wrestling match, temporarily drained by the supreme effort.
For my money, "temporarily drained by the supreme effort" has already been shown by his panting and the effort he put into the rescue, so it's redundant and repetitive. I would delete it.
Boiled down to essentials:
- Telling is dispensing information.
- Showing is evoking experience.
Ask yourself which your narrative is doing.
Have any questions?
Do you have something from your own work that you suspect is telling but you don't know how to show? Tell me about it and I'll see if I can help (I would probably want to post examples I deal with.).
For what it's worth.
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission. Please attach samples as documents to your email.
© 2006 Ray Rhamey