Showing vs. Telling: When Should You Do It?

Last week, I talked about what it meant to “show not tell” in your writing.

To recap: I think of telling as giving the straight facts of a situation, and showing as painting a picture of the situation for the reader. I explained how I believed showing to be a more immersive form of writing because it helps the readers get to know the characters and their world in a much more engaging way. At the end of the first post however, I also said that I didn’t think this method of writing was always superior to telling. Considering I spent the entire post saying how great I think description and vivid images are to keep the readers turning pages, that pronouncement likely seemed like a contradiction. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

The ability to “show,” and therefore have a better chance of evoking emotion in your writing is a wonderful tool to have in your arsenal. But it’s just that; one tool. Just as you cannot build a sturdy house with only one hammer to work with, neither can you write a book with only one method at your fingertips. So,how do you decide when to show something, versus when to simply state the facts? Well, for me, it’s simply determining which situations are important enough to be shown, and which are not. What do I mean by important? If It moves the plot along and/or adds character development, then I consider it important.

Now, I bet you’re going, “But Claerie, shouldn’t every scene do one, or even better, both, of those things?” Yes, yes they should. But it’s the detail put in those scenes that can make the biggest difference.

For example: “Kaley threw on her favorite red sweater before dashing out the door to meet her sister.”

We learn here that “Kaley” has a sister, but whether that’s important  to her character in terms of conflict and plot, depends on the type of story you’re writing. If she just discovered this sister existed and this is the first time the two are meeting, then yeah, the reader is probably going to want to be shown the next scene, because it’ll likely be full of angst and intrigue. If, on the other hand, the main character is meeting her sister because she wants a loan to buy an important Christmas gift… Well, you might want to show it, but you could also get away with not doing it if the scene itself isn’t essential. in short, every scene should act like a domino effect into the next. Kaley getting the extra cash is important in the way that it affects whether she’ll be able to get the Christmas gift she wants, but if the conversation is going to go something like:

“Hey, Maisey, can I borrow some money? I want to get Ryan something special this year, but I spent the savings for it at the car shop after my tire blew out.

Maisey rolled her eyes, but reached into her wallet and pulled out a couple of twenties. “Just make sure you pay me back, okay squirt?”

It’s not nearly as interesting and doesn’t really need to be written. It would be much more impactful if we just saw Ryan opening the gift. His reaction to it, along with Kaley’s would tell the readers whether or not she was able to get the gift she originally intended, and the emotions of that scene based on said fact would probably be a lot more intriguing for the reader.

The other thing we need to talk about is descriptions. In the above sentence, all I said was that Kaley chose to put on her favorite red sweater. A tiny fact that added detail, but does it need to be expounded upon?

Well, remember those literature classes where the teacher would make you analyze a poem or a passage from a famous work and they would say that the blue curtains represented  depression when in reality the author just meant for them to be blue? Well, that kind of applies here. If the sweater has a significant meaning to the character, then you might want to show the scene where she got it earlier in the book, but most of the time, the sweater will be her favorite just because she likes it.

The decision really boils down to motivation: if the reasons behind a character’s actions contribute greatly to their character or a plot point in the story, show it. If it’s a matter of what they ate for breakfast, odds are it does not need an entire scene, or even paragraph, dedicated to it.  

Challenge of the Week: What other writing topics would you like to see me discuss in the coming weeks?

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 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?