Showing vs. Telling: What Does It Mean?

Recently, I was betaing for a writer, and I made a comment that their current draft contained a lot of telling rather than showing. They asked me to further elaborate on what that meant, and I realized that this much-traversed  topic was something I had yet to address here on my blog. So, why not remedy that to kick off 2017?

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, or, in some cases, just a basic English class depending on the type of teacher you had, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” The advice itself can make your writing that much more engaging if you use it correctly, but before you can take it to heart, it’s important to understand how it can help you.

The fabric of writing is words, and words are used to pass along information. You tell your friend you’re stuck in traffic so you’re going to be late for dinner. Someone writes down steps to a recipe so you can make cookies for the school fundraiser… How in the world are you supposed to show something like that?

At least, that’s how I felt the first time I heard of this little writing “rule.”

Instead, I like to look at it as two separate forms of writing. Telling is for giving important, essential facts, like steps to make cookies without burning them. Showing is when you have the opportunity to engage your five senses to paint a picture, and draw the readers into the world with you. With the previous example, you could show a scene in which a person is making cookies based on instructions their friend wrote down for them. This technique will introduce them to the character and can open up an opportunity for some comedic moments as they’re cooking. Furthermore. if the second set of cookies turn out better than the first, it will tell the audience that person has become a better baker thanks to their friend’s help.

Here is another example: It was snowing when Melody woke up that morning.

The fact that it’s snowing is important if the next scene is going to show her racing outside to go play in it. However, the above sentence has done the readers a disservice because even though they know what the weather’s doing, it isn’t clear why they should care, nor do they understand if/why the main character cares.

That’s how you tell whether something you’ve written is showing, or telling. Telling communicates things much like a textbook would, while showing aims at drawing a more emotional reaction, and helps the audience become more invested in the characters and environment you’ve created. Consider the following changes:

Melody yawned and snuggled further under her covers.

When did it get so cold in here? She rubbed her palms together and cracked one eye open, only to squeeze it shut the moment the blinding sunlight streamed through the frosted glass. What time is it?

She rolled over and glanced at her clock, frowning when the red numbers blinking up at her read: 7:23 A.M. She groaned, but slid out of her cocoon of sheets and paddled toward the window.  

Her eyes widened at the thick layer of fluffy, white flakes blanketing their once dry and discolored front yard. Snow!

She squealed raced to her closet, flinging clothes left and right until she found her bulkiest, warmest coat, along with a hat and worn pair of gloves, and scrambled into them.

The second example is a lot longer than first, but notice how much we learn about and the environment. It was the bright light from the snow on the ground that woke her up, instead of it just randomly having been snowing when she got out of bed. We can also assume that she’s not much of an early riser, since she groaned when she read the time on the alarm clock. Descriptions and words like scrambled or raced, along with her actions of squealing and tossing clothes around in an effort to find something warm to wear, let us know she’s excited without having to come out and say it.

Showing is not always superior to telling, something I will discuss next week, but 9 times out of 10, it will help the reader be more engaged with the characters and the plot, and thus keep them turning pages.

Challenge of the Week: What’s another common “writing motto” that you find easy to misunderstand?

3 thoughts on “Showing vs. Telling: What Does It Mean?

  1. Scout says:

    This is a very thoughtful interpretation of showing versus telling; something I’ve been struggling with myself recently! Characters do show us their personalities through “showing.” You’re right! I never thought of it that way. I’d like to see more of your creative work. Do you have a WIP?

    Like

    • claeriekavanaugh says:

      Scout,
      Thank you, I’m so glad you found it helpful! I do have a WIP, but because I want to seek traditional publishing before venturing into self, I am not willing to share it online. However, check out my flash fiction page (under the Writing heading) to see more of my work, and if you hover over the collections buttons and then “12Days of Christmas” you’ll be able to read my latest series of flash fictions. I’m always looking for more post ideas so feel free to check out my Suggestion Box page if you’d like to pitch in!

      Liked by 1 person

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