What’s the Deal with Showing and Telling?

Someone reads your work and says, “There’s too much telling here. You need to show.” Huh? This is that great mystery for beginning writers and even for some writers who’ve been at it a while. Writers like me. My editor, Jeff Gerke, got on my case for sneaking in little bits of telling. “Stop that!” he said. And I said,

“Huh?”

What does telling mean?

In some ways, I still can’t explain this fully, but I can give you a great start. In fact, if you really want the best advice on this, check out Jeff Gerke’s book, The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction. Jeff uses some amazing comparisons to “show” you the difference between telling a story and showing it. Jeff says, “Toss aside your s’mores and put on your director’s chapeau. It’s time to stop telling stories and start making movies—on paper.”

I’ve divided this post into four topics of telling. Hopefully, this will give you some insight to help you improve in this area.

NOTE: Most of the examples in this e-zine are bad examples. Do not write like this! In many places I give a better example to show you the difference.

1. Backstory/Exposition

A lot of people feel the need to tell everything about their character up front. This is called the information dump. A bad example might look like this:

Kate grabbed her backpack that Grandma Kay gave her last Christmas and headed out of the school. She was a studious young girl, and never left home without her backpack. Good grades were important to her. Grandma used to help her study when Kate lived in Miami. They used to spend hours working on Math, Kate’s most challenging subject. Kate missed Miami. She especially missed Grandma Kay. She remembered when he dad told her they were moving.

“Kate, we’re moving,” her dad had said.

“What?” Kate blinked in shock. “No, Dad! I won’t go!”

The reader wants to know about what Kate is doing right now. In case you missed it, she’s walking home from school. There wasn’t much of that in the story. A good writer will save Kate’s backstory for when it’s important for the reader to know, and start the story with some interesting action. Jeff Gerke says to imagine your story as it’s being played on the silver screen. How would the viewer feel if the screen suddenly went black and a voice started talking? Boring! Try not to do that. Let the reader see everything that’s happening.

Telling backstory can also happen in dialogue.

Ex:

“How are you, Mike? I know you broke your leg last week. How is it feeling?”

“It’s better, but I couldn’t play in the basketball game last night like you did.”

“I’m sorry. I know how much that mean to you.”

Or:

“I don’t want to go to the party tonight. I’m tired of trying to meet boys,” Megan said.

“But Meg, you’re so pretty,” Jessica said. “Your blonde curls make me jealous. And you have great posture and a nice figure. You’re taller than me, too, and I know boys like that.”

What a ‘telling’ way to sneak in some character description! Ha ha.

2. Dialogue and the dreaded ‘ly’ controversy.

Many writers are tempted to replace the word ‘said’ with something more creative. That would be a big ‘telling’ mistake. Many writers also like to use an adverb (often a ‘ly’ word) that helps the reader know exactly what is going on. This is also a big ‘telling’ mistake. A good writer will choose dialogue that shows what’s going on. If you give into temptation and repeat yourself in the said tag, you’re ‘telling.’

Ex:

“Are we going to the bank?” Michelle questioned.

“Yes,” Kelly answered.

“How much money are you going to withdraw?” Michelle queried.

“All of it,” Kelly stated, blandly.

“All of it?” Michelle squeaked in shock.

“All of it,” Kelly repeated, firmly.

My thoughts:

“Are we going to the bank?” Michelle asked. (‘Asked’ is the best word for asking a question. Stick with it!)

“Yes,” Kelly answered. (This isn’t the worst thing, but ‘said’ is always better.)

“How much money are you going to withdraw?” Michelle queried. (Icky! Stick with ‘asked.’ Also, at this point, we know there are only two people in the scene, so you only need to show the speakers once. We know that Michelle asked this, since Kelly said yes, in the previous line. No need to state the obvious. Right?)

“All of it,” Kelly stated, blandly. (Blandly tells the reader how they should interpret Kelly’s tone. Readers don’t like this.)

“All of it?” Michelle squeaked in shock. (This also tells the reader what Michelle is feeling and doing.)

“All of it,” Kelly repeated, firmly. (Repeated: More repetition. Firmly: More telling.)

Here’s how to do it better:

“Are we going to the bank?” Michelle asked.

“Yes,” Kelly said.

“How much money are you going to withdraw?”

“All of it.”

Michelle’s jaw dropped. “All of it?”

“All of it.”

Getting rid of all those extra dialogue tags and ‘ly’ words really cleaned up that section. Plus I added that one little action tag: Michelle’s jaw dropped. This showed Michelle’s shock about the amount of money being withdrawn. Her action, the jaw dropping, and her dialogue work together to show the reader what’s going on. It helps to get the reader into the heads of these characters. Make sense? The dialogue, the actual words you put between the quotes, needs to show the feelings. The said tags should feel invisible to the reader. That’s good writing.

3. Passive Voice

There are some words that signal passive voice. Like that sentence I just wrote. The word ‘there’ is one of them. An active rewrite of that first sentence would be: Some words signal passive voice.

I cut, ‘there are,’ two words that didn’t need to be there and were just cluttering up my prose and making my word count too long.

Another one is using the word ‘with.’

Ex:

Incorrect: He looked at the man with a smirk.

Correct: He smirked at the man.

It takes a while to get good at spotting passive voice. Verbs are another good place to look. Specifically the word ‘was.’

Ex: She was walking across the field.

The verb in this sentence, walk, is passive because I attached ‘was’ to it. The active sentence reads: She walked across the field. The sentence still has the same meaning. It’s still in past tense. It just cut out that useless ‘was’ word.

If you want to write even better—show even better—be specific by using concrete words.

Ex: She sprinted across the field. (Shows the reader she’s in a hurry for some reason.)

Ex: She limped across the field. (Shows the reader she might be hurt.)

Ex: She wandered across the field. (Shows the reader she’s taking her time.)

The biggest passive boo boo is flip-flopping the object and the subject of the sentence. Ex:

Incorrect: The book was read by Luke.

Correct: Luke read the book.

Incorrect: Candies were eaten by Monique.

Correct: Monique ate the candies.

Another way to be passive is to tell senses: see, feel, hear, taste, smell.

Ex:

1. Christy saw the bee buzz around a flower.

2. Mike felt the cool breeze on his arms.

3. He heard a fire engine.

4. She tasted the sweetness of the lollipop.

5. Kirk smelled popcorn on the breeze.

Better examples:

1. A bee buzzed around a flower. (If the story is in Christy’s point of view, the author doesn’t have to say, ‘Christy saw.’ We see what she sees.)

2. A cool breeze sent a shiver through Mike. (The same thing applies here. Show us what happens. Show us how Mike feels, not that he feels.)

3. A siren wailed.

4. The lollipop filled her mouth with a sweet cherry flavor.

5. The smell of popcorn drifted in the breeze. Kirk’s stomach growled. (I added that part about the growling stomach. I think I got hungry thinking about the yummy smelling popcorn. LOL)

The words you choose and the way you say them create meaning to your prose. They show the reader what your characters are like. Every word matters. Choose wisely.

4. Weak or Vague words/Concrete and Abstract

Using vague words make your writing weak. It sounds like you, the author, aren’t sure of what is going on in your own story. Ex:

Sarah was a little tired from cheerleading practice.

Mike ate some pizza and fell asleep watching Smallville.

Rachel’s hair was pretty.

What’s wrong with these sentences? They’re vague! Choose your words wisely, means to choose concrete words (very specific words) over abstract. So:

Sarah was exhausted from cheerleading practice.

Mike ate an entire pizza and fell asleep watching Smallville.

Rachel’s hair fell in black waves over her shoulders and down her back.

Well. That might have fixed the abstract words, but there is still some telling in those previous examples. ‘Sarah was exhausted from cheerleading practice,’ tells us exactly that. It doesn’t show it.

Better example: Sarah tossed her duffle bag and pompoms onto the floor. She trudged across her room and fell onto the bed, muscles aching. She awoke at the sound of her mother’s voice…

In all of these forms of telling, the reader is jolted from the story and into the narrators lap. Fiction these days needs to keep the reader immersed in the story, like they are watching a movie in their heads. This is the trick, and it’s a lot of work. If you can learn to do this, you will greatly improve your writing.

Don’t worry about telling for the first draft! Just write that story. Once it’s complete, go back and edit out all the telling.

If you’re working on a final draft, here is a list of words that often could be cut (the sentences reworded) to tighten your work and clean up the ‘telling.’

is, are, was, were, there, it, am, be, being, been, became, there, just, has, have, had, that, little, so, very, every, poor, much, some, remember, thought, felt, saw, heard, smelled, tasted, noticed, actually, basically, surely, perhaps, as, anyway, quite, really, soon, truly, however, almost, entire, though, about, everyone, everything, any ‘ly’ word.

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