All Telling and No Showing Do NOT Make a Good Tale!

“Show what your character is doing, don’t tell!”

Sigh…as a new writer, those words coming from your critique partners, beta readers, or even worse, your editor can be enough to drive you insane. As if deciding to write in the first place wasn’t insane enough! Nevertheless…no matter what genre you write, it’s true.

Having a problem understanding the difference between “Showing” vs. “Telling”? Let me see if I can explain it without anyone blowing a much needed brain cell.

Telling is basically taking a scene, and giving an overwhelming amount of information, such as too much back story (yes, if not written correctly, it can be overkill), or the lack of stimulating visual clues that force your reader to ‘see’ the scene or back drop of what the character is experiencing.

Showing is the opposite. Instead of telling a character’s back story that leads up to a scene, that same information is given by way of dialogue. Another way would be instead of giving clinical descriptions about a location (there were large trees, or it was cold), describe it through the eyes of the character as they see it. What did it look like? (colors and textures) How did it feel (cold, hot, uncomfortable). Using the character’s words (and the handy dandy thesaurus!), it will be much easier to make the change.

Let me give an example. This is from my original manuscript sent to my critique partners. This is a snippet from chapter five. In this version, you see the description I used (it’s been crossed out because it was telling) and replaced by her suggestion which is showing.

Her delicate hand felt soft against my callused palm. Her curvaceous body, the inspiration of last night’s erotic dream, pressed against me. God help me, it was impossible to ignore the softness of her breasts when they brushed across my chest.
  
I struggled to slow my breathing,

[C1] 

I drew in a deep breath and held it for a few second in an effort not wanting her to know how much she was turned me on.
Ebony’s warm body against mine was the most exquisite form of torture.

 [C1]How? (This was the comment made by my Critique partner, indicating the need to ‘show’ what Brian meant, instead of ‘telling’ what he did) 
This how it works. My line was:

I struggled to slow my breathing, not wanting her to know how much she turned me on. 
Okay, so you got a general idea of what he meant. However, it left the reader wanting to know more. Questions such as Why or How were not necessarily answered. What would slowing his breathing mean? How would it change anything else that could be going on inside of him?
My critique partner left a suggested change that I took and ran with once I understood what she meant. 
Here is the result of the final edit: 
Her hand felt soft and delicate in mine. Her curvaceous body, the inspiration for last night’s erotic dream, pressed against me. God help me, it was impossible to ignore the softness of her breasts when she brushed against my chest.
I drew in a deep breath and held it for a few seconds in an effort to control the increased beating of my heart. I didn’t want her to know how much she turned me on.
Ebony’s warm body against mine was the most exquisite form of torture.

See the difference?

Now the reader will get the full sense of Brian’s physical reaction to holding Ebony in his arms for the first time. His heart was racing with from the excitement of feeling her body pressed against him, that first contact. He made a conscious effort to slow his breathing so he wouldn’t start hyperventilating and have Ebony think something was wrong with him. He wanted to remain cool, calm, and confident, things that he’d addressed earlier in the dialogue between them. If I had spent time writing the scene with those words, there would have been no oomph to the story. It would have all been telling what was going on instead of showing how he felt.

Here’s another example, one off the top of my head that is not in my novel.

Let’s say your character is angry, so angry that he snaps in a moment of rage and punches the wall. As a result, he’s broken his hand. There are two ways to tell this.

Telling: 

“What?” he said, anger in his voice.

 Phillip walked around the room knocking every available object off the table. When his path was blocked by the wall, he stopped. Unable to calm down, he reared back as far as possible and throws his fist into the wall. When he pulled back, his knuckled fist was bleeding. He’d broken his hand.

So, here, all of Phillips actions are told to the reader. There’s no need for the reader to visualize what’s happening because it’s like watching a movie. The action is all there. Now, let’s try this in a different way.

Showing:

“What?” Phillip jumped from the chair where he’d been reclining after a long day of tiring work.

 His breath pumped, his fists open and closed as rage filled his very being. Unable to contain his outburst, he searched for any available outlet. The planter, the clock, not even the innocent bottle of water was spared. Within seconds, the floor was littered with debris. His ranting path was cut short by the boundaries of the living room. Without thought, Phillip zeroed in on his new target…then immediately regretted his mindless decision. Blood now stained the wall and pain radiated up us arm. Unable to move his fingers, it was time to seek medical attention. 

Whew! A lot more words went into showing a characters action than just telling. 

Still having a hard time trying to determine how to show and not tell? 

This is what I do. When writing a scene that requires the characters actions to reflect emotion, or a lot of action, the first thing I do is write it as a telling scene. I imagine the list of actions he/she will take to get from point A to point B. Then, I read it through, allowing myself to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ their reaction. How does it affect me emotionally, physically? Is my heart racing? Do I feel my fist balling up? Is it harder to breath? Then I write exactly what I feel, as I feel it. I don’t think of all the technical descriptions and go with the emotional ones. The result is what I got in the showing example. (*This technique works wonderfully when writing love scenes, too!) 

Showing action is much more interesting than telling what is going one. Keeping your readers stuck on paragraph after paragraph of telling will bore them to the point of going to sleep. Without the action in showing to stimulate reader’s imagination, they are in no rush to come back the next day to read more. Let’s face it, captivating the reader’s attention will not only have them read your entire novel, it will have them salivating for your next available work.

Isn’t that what we ALL want? 

In a nutshell, the difference between telling and showing is all in the way you say it. Don’t waste time giving long-winded speeches as to why a character is motivated to take action, let them tell it in dialogue when possible. If done while the character is musing…keep it short and sweet, pepper it in the manuscript when necessary. Don’t overdue.

Also, when showing, don’t be afraid to be descriptive, use that thesaurus, and attach it to the top of your head if you have too. The point is, be creative, don’t fall into the habit of using passive words or phrases. Those will slow down your prose and take an action scene into a slow-mo scene that causes your readers to yawn. So will repeating the same tired phrases…such as like, and….oh good grief, that’s a whole new blog. I’ll tackle that one another time. 

Until then, I hope you found this information useful! Feel free to drop a line below. As always I love to hear your thoughts, comments, and who doesn’t like a good follow every now and then? 

Happy Writing! 


MJ

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9 thoughts on “All Telling and No Showing Do NOT Make a Good Tale!

  1. Great post! Thanks for your examples. We can never get enough reminders. Sometimes it takes a while for it to sink in. I'll be back to read up on some of your other interesting posts!Have a great week!

  2. Hi,I find it helps to people-watch for the very specfic actions that suggest someone is happy, angry, frustrated, embarrassed etc. If I can do a good job showing those behaviors in my fiction, readers and see/feel without being told.

  3. Thanks, Peggy! Glad you enjoyed the post! No it was not easy and you can't slack off or you'll end up reverting back to telling. I've found once I've programmed myself into 'writing out the action' during the 1st draft(telling) then going back and switching my brain over to the 'showing'is a completely different mindset. It takes practice and you've got to pay attention…but after a while, its almost as easy as breathing. I said ALMOST! LOL

  4. I agree, Carol, people watching is a very good thing. Sometimes we stay attached to our computers so much that we begin using the same actions because we haven't been around 'live' humans to get reminders of what it is various people do. If I'm looking for a specific type of action or emotion, I'll put on a movie where I know what I am looking for is portrayed by an actor. I'll watch, study, make mental notes, then come back to the computer and work in the scene.

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