Sunday 15 September 2019

Writers’ Questions: What’s the deal with Showing vs. Telling?

I’ve been blogging about historical fiction for the last six years, but, in the summer of 2020, my own debut historical novel, Brontë’s Mistress, will be released by Atria Books (more on this here).

In this series, titled Writers’ Questions, I’m sharing some advice about the writing and publication process to help other writers. Last time, the passive voice was written about by me (not zombies!). In this week’s post, I’m exploring one of the most common pieces of creative writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)
You wanted to become a writer because you like to tell stories. But now someone is telling you that telling is bad, and you should be ‘showing’ instead. What’s up with that? And what does showing vs. telling even mean?

Simply put, writers are advised to show, rather than tell, when a) they’re narrating something that readers should be able to work out for themselves; or, b) they’re summarising, rather than immersing the reader in the story. Let’s look at some of the most common places where writers tell, when showing would be better:

Telling emotions
Search your work-in-progress novel for emotion words e.g. angry, happy, exhausted, sad. Then consider whether there are ways you can show characters’ emotions, vs. telling readers how they’re feeling. Often you’ll find that body language cues can replace the telling of emotions and bring more action to your story.

If John is banging his fists on the table and turning red in the face, readers will probably conclude that he’s angry. If Susan is tired make her yawn. If she’s sad, maybe she’s hanging her head and sniffing back tears.

You may run into a problem where you keep repeating the same body language and/or actions. Maybe your characters are constantly shrugging, slamming doors, or crossing their arms. This is a great opportunity to hone your writerly powers of observation. What are the different ways the people you know in real life respond when they’re angry, for example? Not everyone is the door slamming type!

Telling relationships
Relatedly, writers can also fall into a trap of telling readers the state of relationships between characters e.g. 'Priya had a crush on Kevin', or 'Michael and Jayden had been best friends for five years'.

Often this is totally unnecessary. You can show Michael and Jayden’s friendship through how they speak to each other and the length of their relationship through references, in dialogue or narration, to their shared past. Humans act very differently with each other depending on their level of intimacy so bring some of these nuances to how your characters communicate in your story.

There are lots of great ways to show that Priya has a crush on Kevin too, many of which will give you the opportunity to develop your characters a lot more. Consider something like this:

Oh God, there was Kevin, looking beautiful, as usual, with his winning smile and perfectly messy hair. And Priya was just messy messy, dressed as a hot dog and covered in real ketchup. Maybe he wouldn’t see her. Maybe she could make a run for it. “Priya!” Kevin called from across the room. 

Telling people about your world
Lots of writers spend months, or even years, building the worlds where their novels are set. Maybe you’re writing fantasy and have dreamed up a complicated magic system. Maybe your sci-fi novel is set on a different planet in a different galaxy. Or maybe, like me, you write historical fiction and need to transport your readers to a different time and place.

In each of these cases, it’s very easy for telling to creep in. Are you opening with a prologue describing how your world was created? Are characters telling each other things both of them should be aware of (watch out for the tell-tale words ‘as you know’)? Are you writing paragraphs and paragraphs explaining the workings of philosophy, physics, and politics?

If so, consider how you can introduce features of your world more naturally by showing vs. telling. Want readers to understand a plumbing system? Maybe your characters get stuck in the sewers. Want readers to be aware that two tribes of people hate each other? Use dialogue to reveal their prejudices. No need to say ‘back then people travelled by horse and carriage’ or ‘in the Land of the Fairies, only wizards use wands’. Just have your characters travel by horse and carriage or a character say ‘he must be a wizard!’ when someone uses a wand.

However, despite the popularity of the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim, there are times when telling is a valid, even preferable, choice over showing. Here are some examples:

Telling in dialogue
People tell each other things all the time when they speak so it’s natural for your characters to do the same. For example, while above I recommended you avoid telling emotions, it can be very powerful for characters to confide their feelings to each other and discuss their emotional responses to what’s going on. Dialogue is also a great way for characters to learn necessary information they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Why do you think Harry Potter and friends are constantly eavesdropping under the cover of the invisibility cloak?

Telling to jump through time
Telling vs. showing is a problem when you’re writing a scene but between scenes it is sometimes necessary to tell, especially if you’re skipping a large chunk of time. Consider a sentence like ‘for the next few weeks it was business as usual’. Telling here helps you avoid the ‘boring bits’, bridges the gaps between interesting events and delivers key information to readers.

The premise of many novels, especially those written in first person or omniscient third, is that readers are being told a story. Maybe a teenage girl is telling us about the time she ran away from home, or an all-seeing godlike narrator is drawing a moral from an epic adventure.

In these cases, especially at the beginning and end of scenes, chapters and the novel itself, there will be sentences that tell, rather than show. The quintessential storytelling opening, ‘once upon a time…’ for example, is of this type. Most first person novels establish why a story is being told in the opening lines and we expect this telling voice to guide us similarly throughout.

Consider, for example, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s 1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

Ultimately, we all write to tell stories and telling and showing are two of the techniques in our toolkits to do just that. The advice ‘show, don’t tell’, shouldn’t make you eschew telling entirely, but if you’re getting this feedback a lot, especially around relationships, emotions and world building, consider taking it to heart and telling your story via showing instead.

What topic would you like to see the Secret Victorianist cover in the next instalment of Writers’ Questions? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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