Story Basics 101: Show Don’t Tell

The golden writing rule ‘show, don’t tell’ is etched in every writer’s mind, and if you’re new to the wonderful world of writing, it will become ingrained. Pretty much all of us start out writing as ‘telling’ stories rather than ‘showing’ stories. After all, it’s how we communicate in person with our conversations. From a creative writing perspective, ‘showing’ is far superior, because it’s painting a scene with words rather than making a series of statements to formulate a story. The first step is being able to identify between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’. The second step is understanding the strengths and weaknesses each element provides. Believe it or not, there is a time and place for both — shhh, it’s a secret.

What is Telling?

 ‘Telling’ refers to the statements of fact made in creative writing. Character thoughts, feelings, and actions can be rendered to telling. Consider the following statements; her mother is insane, Amy is furious, or the door is locked. All three of these statements are ‘telling’ the reader story information. 

Telling is quick, to the point, and doesn’t paint a picture for the reader. How is her mother insane? The statement suggests a conclusion with no evidence. Why was Amy furious? What are her actions and thoughts? ‘The door is locked’ is a fine statement, but how does the character know? Did the character try turning the knob or using a key? Is the locked door a good or a bad omen? If the protagonist is held captive, there will be a sense of anxiety. On the other hand, if there is a stalker outside, the barrier may create a sense of relief. Telling cuts back on the detail.

Traditional fairytales are notorious for being told in a telling fashion. Below is Snow White‘s opening.

 It was the middle of winter, when the broad flakes of snow were falling around, that the queen of a country many thousand miles off sat working at her window. The frame of the window was made of fine black ebony, and as she sat looking out upon the snow, she pricked her finger, and three drops of blood fell upon it. Then she gazed thoughtfully upon the red drops that sprinkled the white snow, and said, ‘Would that my little daughter may be as white as that snow, as red as that blood, and as black as this ebony windowframe!’ And so the little girl really did grow up; her skin was as white as snow, her cheeks as rosy as the blood, and her hair as black as ebony; and she was called Snow White.

What is showing?

‘Showing’ is like virtual reality for the reader. The story world is vivid in the reader’s mind. In contrast, ‘telling’ tends to offer a vague picture in the reader’s mind, the details are lacking. 

Consider the lines —

Amy was furious
vs
Amy slammed the door

We can’t see fury. Fury isn’t an action, it’s a feeling that drives action. The reader is being told she is furious. However, Amy slamming the door conveys her fury without stating the fact and the reader can see in their head a door being slammed. The reader is shown the fury via the slamming door. 

Sometimes ‘showing’ requires a paragraph to play out (‘showing’ typically uses more words than ‘telling’).

Often a statement is telling the reader a conclusion without any evidence. ‘Her mother is insane’ offers no details, just a conclusion, and begs the question — why does the protagonist think her mother is insane? Below is the ‘telling’ statement converted into ‘showing’. 

Helen followed her mother’s voice down the hall. Who was she talking to? Please let her be on the phone. Taking a deep breath. Helen entered the lounge room. Kneeling on the carpet, Marge tapped the TV screen. On the table, pills sat untouched. “Oh, Mum.” 

Direct internal dialogue, such as ‘please let her be on the phone’ is ‘showing’. However, any character’s thoughts written into the narration are ‘telling’.

Please let her be on the phone
vs
Helen hoped her mother was on the phone

‘Helen hoped her mother was on the phone’ is a telling statement. The reader is told how Helen is feeling. The line ‘please let her be on the phone’ conveys hope and dread for the alternative, without Helen’s feelings being outright stated.   

Dialogue is also considered ‘showing’ because the character is actively engaging in a conversation. 

Why Show?

There are several reasons for a writer should ‘show’ rather than tell. ‘Showing’ entertains and engages the reader, much like a film does a viewer. Consider good writing a film on the page. ‘Showing’ evokes emotion from readers as they travel through the story and connect with the characters. Connection gives life to the world. Humans are emotional creatures. Above all else, ‘showing’ respects reader intelligence. Readers like to feel smart and draw their own conclusions regarding character feelings and actions. A slamming door shows a character is cheesed off. The reader doesn’t need to be told the obvious. 

How to Identify Telling?

Telling falls into passive language territory. A detailed post featuring passive vs active language can be read here. Active language and ‘showing’ are married as are passive language and ‘telling’. Identifying passive language is identifying the ‘telling’ in a story. 

Passive language and ‘telling’ signs to watch out for —

1.) Naming emotions (sad, happy, angry, excited, and so on) 
2.) Descriptive dialogue tags (yelled, whispered, etc — context should imply tone)
3.) Explaining motivations using “to” (She grabbed her gun to shoot the intruder.)
4.) Words stating thoughts (thought, knew, remembered, recalled, reviewed, and considered)
5.) Stating the five senses (saw, smelled, heard, felt, and tasted) 
6.) Words that give a sense of time: immediately, suddenly, finally
7.) Helping verbs aka auxiliary verbs; 
To be: is, am, are, was, were, will be
To have: have, has, had, will have
To do: do, does, did, will do
8.) Modal verbs: can, could, may, might, must, ought to, shall, should, will, and would

When is Telling Superior? 

The biggest problem with the ‘show don’t tell’ rule is… dum… dum… dum… it’s a fallacy. I find the ‘golden rule’ to be a damaging porky that lingers. My guess is beginners are fed the nonsense to enforce good habits and not to confuse beginners by bombarding them with too much at once. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a challenging concept to wrap the noggin around without discussing the ‘yeah buts’. ‘Showing’ on its own is quite the skill to master. 

However, there are many times when ‘telling’ is required. As writers, we make the creative choice when it’s necessary to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. A bit like an artist selecting colours from a full pallet.

Boring parts of a narrative need to be omitted or skimmed for flow. Think of ‘story’ as the extraordinary. The mundane has no purpose, and every paragraph needs to push the story forward. Don’t bore your reader and bog them down with descriptive paragraphs of an everyday morning routine — wake up, shower, dress, eat. (see What Story Isn’t for details). Instead, make a ‘telling’ statement like “Bob’s morning started like any other — a curse for a new workday and a rush to get out the door.” Such statements fasten the story’s pace by compressing time, and in turn, creates a flowing transition between scenes. We don’t need to see Bob shower, dress, and eat.

‘Telling’ is useful for word building, and reminding the reader about events that occurred earlier in the story. A couple of ‘telling’ lines can add to the reading experience. The key is not to overdo it or you may commit the ‘info dumping’ crime. Info dumping blocks the story flow, with a paragraph (or more) of story information that doesn’t move the plot forward. Info dumping usually comes in the form of a backstory or lengthy description. 

Other reasons for ‘telling’ —

  • A ‘telling’ sentence can create an emotional punch. “BANG — he was gone”. The line is simple but effective. Such lines make great story openers and closers.
  • Children’s stories are often ’telling’ the reader the story. This makes it easier for the young ones to understand. 
  • First drafts: anything goes in the first draft of a story. The first draft’s focus is getting the story out in any shape and form. The great plot discovery. Magic is in the editing.

If you’re reading this and feeling WTF or overwhelmed, focus on learning how to ‘show’ a story and understanding the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ before you consider combining the two.

Conclusion

The ‘show don’t tell’ rule is dishonest. Solid writers need to identify between the ‘show’ and ‘tell’ for strong storytelling and use both to their advantage. Reading a story should be like watching an internal movie; character emotions are shown via action, speech, and internal dialogue. ‘Telling’ helps with the flow and gives writers a tool to cut down boring parts of the story. 

~*~

Exercise

Read through some of your old writing and identify the ’telling’ in the story. Rewrite the story with a focus on showing. You can also do these steps with a children’s book or classic fairy tales (they are usually full of ‘telling’ narration).



Categories: language, Writers' Tool Box, Writing

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