Writing Quick Tip #5 – Demystifying Showing vs. Telling

A few times per week, I offer unsolicited writing advice to anyone who will listen. Sometimes, I even follow it myself.


No matter where you are in your writing journey, chances are you’ve now heard of the cardinal offense that distinguishes newbie writers from the pros.  The ten commandments of writing clearly state, “Thou Shalt Not Tell.”  Novice writers often rely on telling to get their stories across.  But is telling really all that sinful?  And will a little telling instantly mark you as an amateur?

Telling is exactly what it sounds like: a statement of information about a character, a setting, an action: “You are currently reading a blog post.”  Showing brings the reader into the scene, sets the stage and lets them watch the play, giving the opportunity for fly-on-the-wall observing.  Here’s what I think: They both have their place in your novel.  But you must learn when it is appropriate to utilize them.

I’ve found that telling is instrumental in pacing.  Sometimes, you need to move things along and get the point across.  And sometimes, too much showing can result in overly-flowery, pretentious (and often confusing) prose.  When I’m writing, I try to keep the scale even with a little showing and a little telling, for the sake of balance.  I ask myself one question to evaluate whether it’s okay to transgress into telling.  “Is this interesting enough to show?”

Here’s a little example of the thought process that goes on in my head…

My protagonist feels uncomfortable in a setting.  Let’s say it’s a haunted house.  Is that interesting?  Sure.  I might make her fidget or shiver or give her some heart palpitations.  Her gaze might linger on the cobwebs, and she might step lightly on the creaking floorboards to keep from agitating them.  If she’s talking to someone in the scene, I’ll have her say, “This place gives me the creeps.”

My villain needs to enter the room.  Is that interesting?  Not really.  I’ll probably just tell you that.  “He followed the protagonist through the door of the haunted house.”  And then we can move on.

My protagonist sees a ghost hanging out in the kitchen of said house.  Is that interesting?  Oh, yes.  Very.  She might see the flicker of a face from the corner of her eye, look just in time to catch the image of a woman in a bustled dress and Gibson girl coiffure, only to watch her fade away a second later.  That’s much better than, “She saw a ghost.”  Just writing that last sentence pretty much put me to sleep, so I can’t imagine what it would do to you, the reader.

My villain notices that the moon is out.  Is that interesting?  Nope.  I don’t care that a giant glowing orb was suspended in the sky, the dim light bouncing off the villain’s glasses.  He’s just going to look through a broken window of the haunted house and say, “Oh, my!  The moon is out.”  Done.

My protagonist must learn that the villain is in fact not a mere mortal, but a werewolf. Will we show this?  You bet we will.  He’s not just going to “change into a wolf,” but his skin will “suddenly prickle with the beginnings of dark, determined stubble, covering every inch of his arms,” and his teeth will, “burst forward in his mouth, his lips retracting to reveal a chain of pointed fangs,” and his stature will, “arch into a contortion, arms reaching for the floor, legs buckling backward.”

My point is, if you’re struggling with slipping into the telling slump, ask yourself if whatever you are writing is all that interesting.  If it is, show us.  If it’s not, I give you permission to tell me.  We can move along to the better stuff.  It’s okay.

What are your thoughts on showing vs. telling?  Do you have any tips for other writers?  Let me know in the comments!


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