AUTHORS: Is “Showing” versus “Telling” Truly Either-Or?

business-graphics-1428664-mToday I am continuing a series of post about opposites in fiction that writers often consider to be cases of “either-or” but in reality may be seen to be the ends of a spectrum instead.

By the very nature of saying that a spectrum exists, there is a whole line connecting the two “opposites,” and any particular case may fall anywhere on that line, combining qualities of each “purity” (represented by the end points) in varying degrees.

My last post examined philosophical versus action/plot-driven fiction as such a spectrum. Today, I wanted to explore the hot topic of “showing versus telling” as a spectrum.

Now, showing versus telling is such a hot topic that it honestly has become over-examined and even boring. The basic point everyone is always saying: Showing is better. Don’t “tell.” Demonstrate. Illustrate.

On a (very) simplified level, I think we all agree with this: show, don’t tell. Showing is better. The problem is that writing is never simple, and we often try to adhere to this as a hard and fast rule when really it isn’t and can’t be.

My two points today:

  • “telling has becoming extremely underrated as a narrative device
  • “showing” and “telling” are on a spectrum.

First of all, whenever we “show” in fiction, we are also telling. We may choose to “tell” that Amy ran out the room, covering her face with her hands and slamming the door, in order to “show” that she is upset, and probably upset with reason (if we know Amy is not prone to overreacting.) We may choose to “tell” what Amy does in order to demonstrate her emotional state, rather than “tell” directly that “Amy was upset by what James said.”

One one level, “telling” what Amy does is “showing” what her emotional state is. And that is one problem with saying simply, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s just not a clear enough directive.

The fact is, you can write in such a way to show one thing and simultaneously tell another related thing. Perhaps when telling that Amy ran out the door, you are also showing that her relationship with James is in trouble and even a bit dysfunctional. If another character “tells” someone that Amy is afraid of James, point blank, you just might be showing (in very few words) that Amy and James’s relation is abusive, or you might be showing that this friend is misinformed, or that this friend has an ulterior motive for making Amy angry or for spreading rumors about her (depending on the story and the circumstance).

The Upside of “Telling”

Is it always good to tell? Of course not. But are there moments when “telling” makes sense? Most definitely.

First of all, our current tendency to disparage “telling” has killed the art of description in storytelling, and that is a shame. Long descriptions can be beautiful and very much worthwhile given a particular author’s style and purpose, even if those descriptions constitute  “telling” and even if they don’t directly contribute to plot.

Fiction is more than plot. Than action. Narrative art is more than a simple account of who did what and when.

There are ways to “tell” well and ways to “tell” poorly. And if you “tell” well, you are writing well. Take, for instance, the first line of C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

This line most certainly tells, rather than shows, who Eustace is. Just as certainly, it works. I think it is one of the best first lines I’ve ever read in my life. Here’s why:

  • It packs a punch. And it packs a punch because it’s short. It accomplishes a lot in few words. You get a real picture of who Eustace is in far less time than it would take to “show” that.
  • It is beautifully funny. Honestly, it has a comedic effect that I just love.
  • It sets the scene and prepares the reader to be dealing with an unpleasant character. Sometimes, a reader does need to know a major character is going to be a pill. If we don’t expect it we’re far more likely to grudge it and stop reading.

I can’t imagine any editor reading that first line and telling Lewis, “Show, don’t tell!” Sometimes telling is just fine. Sometimes it just works. So if you find you have a passage that does a lot of telling, but it does it in a unique, creative, and engaging way, a way that accomplishes what you need and adds to the readability or the charm of your story, RELAX.

That’s not a problem.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

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44 responses to “AUTHORS: Is “Showing” versus “Telling” Truly Either-Or?

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about telling! It’s so underrated by writers.

  2. Interesting. I certainly agree – I’ve read great pieces of telling that sometimes make me question the show-don’t-tell. I like the idea of thinking about it on a spectrum because that’s definitely more realistic to life.

  3. Think I’m at a point where I have a physical reaction to someone saying ‘show, don’t tell’. Most of them time I hear it, the speaker can’t explain what they mean. So I think half the time a reader uses the cliche in an attempt to sound smart, but it’s really something else that they have an issue with. As you pointed out, removing all ‘telling’ kills describing stuff and that’s a big part of fantasy writing. Makes it really hard to listen to the suggestion, especially when you factor in the every person has their own definition of ‘show, don’t tell’ and their own limits. One reader might think you have the perfect balance and another might think all you do is ‘tell’. It’s fallen into the ‘can’t please everyone’ category for me.

    • I think the “can’t please everybody” category is where it belongs. Showing versus telling is just a stylistic thing and some authors are able to “tell” with great skill, energy, and success. It’s just about who you are, how you right, and what you want to emphasize about/in your story.

      • So it’s probably more a decision of style and the reader might have to adapt a bit. I know people hate hearing that, but it’s unrealistic to think that all authors will tailor their style to the same reader tastes. I’ve actually had people talk to me as if that’s how it should be.

        Do you think ‘telling’ is under fire due to a shorter attention span on people? They want to get through the ‘boring’ stuff quickly, so longer descriptions are hated?

        • I honestly thing you are on to something there. We live in an age of instant gratification and “now now now” and “me me me”. Beyond that I think the medium of film has influenced how we approach the medium of the written word

        • Good point. People are choosing books based on if there is a movie or not. Some people won’t even touch a book and wait for a movie or TV show that will never happen. It should be a system where the two mediums help each other, but people want the easier storytelling where they don’t have to put any effort in. And I love movies, so it’s hard to speak out against them.

          I have noticed that books are getting shorter, so I wonder if that’s part of the mentality. Authors are cutting out descriptions and subplots to streamline their stories. My books range from 300-404 pages and that’s apparently ‘too big’ for many people. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘show, don’t tell’ misunderstanding has a little something to do with that.

        • I think you are right about the streamlining!!! WOW. Makes me wonder about my books too…

        • We’re fantasy authors. We tend to aim for big books because it’s the best way to make sure our world, magic system, monsters, characters, fictional governments, and fictional religions get flushed out correctly. Occupational hazard/necessity unless you go with ‘the dragon was big, breathed fire, and sounds like Sherlock Holmes . . . then he was stabbed.’

        • hahahaha!!!!!!!!!!! oh Cumberbatch’s Smaug :-) :-)

  4. Hear! Hear! I’m so glad someone has come out with this. I write software for a living. Lots of one’s and zeros. Black and white. One or the other, nothhing in between. Writing fiction is one escape from that but still, I so often sit here wondering how I can show something (100%) and not tell anything (0%) it’s impossible. As you say, it’s a spectrum of continuity running from one to the other. A rainbow is at its most beautiful when it displays all its colours, right?

  5. While I don’t think that we’ve really lost the art of telling – I still read beautiful modern fiction that’s full of rich description, for example Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy novels – I do agree that there isn’t a clear cut distinction between show and tell. You’re always doing both at once, it’s the way that you combine and that you perform them that matters.

  6. Excellent post, Victoria. I used to enjoy “painting pictures with words,” but today’s readers have no tolerance for descriptive passages. I learned to keep those passages brief–to set a scene, place, or mood. In regard to showing versing telling, often telling is more expedient. We can enliven our writing by choosing active rather than passive verbs, but still “tell.” In an action-packed story, we will do more “showing”; in a cerebral story, more telling. The best we authors can do is strike a balance when we write and use every technique available to enhance our storytelling ability.

    • you are so right, Linda. Like all things in writing it is about a balance, a balance that lean more heavily more way or another depending on an author’s genre, style, and personal goals/reason for writing.

  7. Pingback: A Dresden Files example of ‘show don’t tell’ | Andrew Knighton writes

  8. I think that showing is more important than telling.

    • In a blanket sense–in any sense that you can simply the dilemma of showing versus telling–I do think I agree :-) But I also think, especially in certain genres such as fantasy, “telling” has an important role and place.

      • Okay. I did not know that. I do not write fantasy, so that is new news to me.

        • Fantasy can be a lot of fun :-) A lot of times, fantasy happens to be placed in a world that does not actually exist, so the reader can’t be familiar with it. So there needs to be some grounding, some way to introduce the reader to the world. Though there can be “showing” involved as well as telling, telling, in short doses and done in an interesting/intriguing way, can be an aid to fantasy authors and all authors. Like I said though, I do think readers prefer to be “shown” something and that “showing” is a mark of greater creativity most of the time. Often “telling” something CAN represent the easy, simple way out and taking time to find a way to “show” what you would have told makes for a more readable and more original scene. For sure. :-)

  9. Loved all parts of this :-)

    One that applied to an area I often feel a guilty pleasure about, is –

    “Long descriptions can be beautiful and very much worthwhile given a particular author’s style and purpose, even if those descriptions constitute ‘telling’ and even if they don’t directly contribute to plot.”

    I paint and photograph and love visual descriptions, and, do try :-) to have them amplify or contrast or “something” with the story or one or more of the characters – hey, isn’t that also story? :-)

    Gonna have to check out your philosophical vs action piece. Had seen it pop up in my email alerts some time back, then got sick busy forgetful and side-tracked :-)

  10. “Show, don’t tell” is advice that I think applies more to beginning writers who maybe “tell” everything and haven’t figured out yet how to show something. But as we advance as writers, we need to recognize that there’s more nuance to writing than just showing all the time.

  11. Great blog post. I think you’re definitely right, and I think this phrase has become overused. It’s used as a one-phrase diagnosis of many specific problems, whether that is too much backstory at one time, too many adverbs and its corollary weak verbs, or too much passive voice. Since sometimes emotions don’t manifest themselves with physical action, true talent lies in fleshing that out without resorting to “she felt sad”.

  12. Good point. Most writing rules make me think of a wonderful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” “Show, don’t tell” is still valuable, if only because beginning writers tend to tell, tell, tell. (I teach college composition — I know!) But obviously almost any narrative needs some telling. Especially novels, which might otherwise get bogged down in dramatized scenes that don’t really contribute to the plot. This includes vivid description rich in specific imagery (which I would say is in fact showing, not telling, since it paints a picture in the reader’s head).

  13. In William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride” he describes several passages that he claims to have abridged from the original novel. He describes (but thankfully does not include) a sequence where a visiting princess spends 20 pages or so packing and unpacking hats. I suspect that he invented many of the scenes simply to lampoon the concept of “show, don’t tell”.

  14. Love the C.S. Lewis quote! Dawn Treader is a personal favourite. The other thing I like about that line is Lewis saying Eustace “almost” deserved it – which also tells you that he isn’t all bad. So much is told to us in one short line. :) It just goes to show that telling can be an art as much as showing.

  15. I totally agree with you! I do believe there is a place for “telling” in a narrative, just for simplicity’s sake sometimes. I’ve been challenging myself to “show” more whenever I can. However, “telling” certainly still finds a place in good literature in places where describing the entire scene in vivid detail just kills the mood of the story.

  16. Pingback: Narration vs Dialgoue: A Clear-Cut Distinction? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  17. I just want to thank you very much for actually articulating something that I have felt and thought about for years, but never said straight out because I was afraid of making it obvious that I’ve never taken a writing class.

    I’ve always had a problem with the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ as a rigid rule. What about action scenes? What about normal scenes where you don’t want to slow the pace by using the circuitous ‘show’ route? To me it seems kind of similar to how some people say that using salt in things is lazy and bad, and that you should use an array of spices for flavoring instead. Sure, being heavy-handed with salt is a bad thing; but a little salt brings just enough flavor without being overly complicated, and can even bring out different flavors from other spices. So, it’s not a bad thing at all if you know how to use it. ^-^

    (Also, someone told me that this rule sprang up based on one particular author’s set of guidelines for good writing… and that always seemed really weird to me.)

  18. Pingback: Blogdom July, 2014 | The ToiBox of Words

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