Saturday, July 9, 2011

Showing vs. Telling: The Myth of "Never Tell"

Every writer has heard it said that showing is better than telling.  You know the drill.

Sue felt angry.

Sue hurled the frying pan at Pat's head with a demon-tongued curse, and landed a kick to his newly prone limbs before heading for the exit. "See ya in hell, a-hole," she said, slamming the door behind her.

But, one problem I often see in manuscripts by amateur writers is showing to the extreme.  A manuscript that only shows and never tells becomes weighed down.  Most of the time, the reader  interprets this mistake as the novel being "overly long", "having weird pacing", or sometimes "lacking depth".  That's because if a writer always shows and never tells, their novel will jump from scene to scene like a screenplay but without the advantage of the acting and cinematography to bring it to life.

Here are five examples of when telling is preferred over showing:

1. Establishing the point of view 
ex: "My mother used to tell me about the ocean" -The Forrest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.

2. Communicating the narrator's thoughts about others
ex: "I didn't go to Alice's funeral....I hated Alice by then and was glad she was dead." -Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James.

3. Slowing the rhythm or pacing of the work so that the reader can digest an earlier scene
ex: "Can I help you?"
The man Jack was tall. This man was taller....People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business--and he did not like to be noticed--were troubled, or scared...
"I was looking for someone," said the man Jack. - pg 18 of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  See how that paragraph of telling interjected in the dialogue slows the pace and allows the reader to catch up with the scene?

4. Backstory, especially in a sequel or series.  
ex: "Harry was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated summer holidays more than any other time of year.  For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also was a wizard."-Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling.

5. When what happens isn't important enough to the story to develop a scene.
This is self-explanatory.  We don't need a scene to show a character doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. Also, we don't need a scene to show that minor character A talked to minor character B about subplot C.  Just tell.

Interesting to me is the fact that you can find more telling in classic literature than modern literature.  You can speculate why that might be (short attention spans anyone?).

I hope this helps you decide when to show and when to tell.  Write on fellow word-jockeys!

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