This topic is one of the most talked about writing lessons on the internet. Google it. You will find many confusing and helpful posts on the topic. However, until you are told by your instructor or coach or editor that you are telling and not showing, it’s difficult to see when you are doing it.
Hopefully you will find the following helpful.
What is telling?
In simple terms, don’t tell the reader about the character or location or object. Don’t tell the reader how the character feels. See if you can identify the pattern of telling in the following simplistic, present tense examples.
- Sally is tall with blond hair.
- Barney’s has an upset stomach.
- Beth’s room is dark.
- Fred’s bag is heavy.
What is showing?
Let’s see how you might show the same information.
- Sally ducked down in front of the full-length mirror to check if her dark roots were going to reveal that her blond hair was a disguise.
- Barney pressed one hand to his stomach and the other to his mouth as he ran from the room.
- Beth opened her eyes but could only see a red glowing dot. She knew that dot and what it meant about the room she now found herself.
- Fred stumbled forward when he picked up duffle bag. His shoulder sagged as he draped the duffle bag’s strap across his body.
You might have noticed that the examples above are written in third person. Given first person storytelling is popular, how would you show in these examples using first person?
- My hairdresser told me that going blond would make me look less like an Amazon warrior. I don’t have to look in the mirror to know that nothing will hide the fact that I have to duck to going through a doorway.
- The sensation hit me out of the blue. One second I was laughing with my friends. The next, I was sprinting to the restroom, hoping I wouldn’t barf on the way to the restroom.
- I didn’t want to open my eyes. I didn’t have to. The smell, the lumpy mattress, I knew where I was, again. The sound of boots pounding on cement forced me to open my eyes, to face my situation. As I waited for my torturer to open the door, the red dot on the locking mechanism glowed in the darkness.
- The duffle bag was supposed to be filled with feathers, not feel like it’s nailed to the floor. It took only a second to realize what had happened. When I regained my footing enough to lift the bag’s strap over my shoulder, I braced myself for my escape.
Telling on Purpose
You might be wondering if telling is ever permitted. I asked my writing coach this question each time she called me out on telling versus showing. She said yes. Let’s look at some examples of when telling is okay.
- Bridging the gap, or narrative link (as my coach would say).
- Actions – both macro and micro.
Bridging the Gap
Not all of your character movements are worth writing down. However, if your character seems to magically move from one location to another, then you might lose them. Here are a couple of examples.
- In the fifteen minutes it took me to get from my office to my apartment, my headache went from a mild ache to full on migraine.
- The instruction book gave Bethany three steps to follow. It’s the third step that she now faced as her heart tried to crawl out of her chest. It knew something she didn’t.
In each example, the characters are performing tasks that, if you were to write the scenes, the reader doesn’t need to experience in order to be told the story.
Bridging the gaps is about skipping over actions that don’t add value to the story. However, many other actions are important to the story. With that said, if you are going to tell the reader the actions of your characters, you need to do it in a way that the reader feels engaged.
- Macro actions
- Micro actions
Common macro actions are fight scenes, chases, dances. Compare the two examples below of telling the action.
- The warrior stabbed the enemy in the chest with his long sword.
- The warrior blocked a strike from above. He ducked and pivoted, bringing he sword up and driving it into his enemy’s chest.
Do you feel the difference? You tell the audience that the warrior blocked the strike, that he ducked and pivoted, that he drove his sword up. With action like this, you allow the reader to see the movement – a show via the use of tell.
If your character scratches his nose, you don’t have to paint a picture of the action. These types of actions can help convey unspoken information. Let’s consider a couple of examples.
- “I don’t know where he is.” Franny glanced left then right. “He could be anywhere.”
- Jeff shuddered, remembering the nightmare that he lived through as a child.
- Shelly lunged for a tissue but she sneezed before she could cover her nose.
Each of these examples would likely be a part of a larger sentence salad that would paint a larger picture of the story.
Readers want to feel like they can be part of the story, that they can relate to the characters and what they are experiencing. If you haven’t done so, next time you read a book that you don’t want to put down, ask yourself why. Look at how the author showed you what was happening.