Growl, Don’t Purr: Show, Don’t Tell

If an aspiring novelist has pursued an interest in improving her fiction writing style, she may have come across “Show, don’t tell.” This lingo commands the writer to improve her story by showing and avoid telling. But here’s the truth: fiction writing is a balance of showing and telling.

What’s the difference?

Showing is the narrative part of fiction writing. It reveals the personalities of characters mainly through their actions and dialogue. It should be reserved for unpeeling a scene moment by moment, action by action, chat by chat.

Telling is the exposition part of fiction writing. It summarizes a passage of time or a series of actions in just a few sentences and gets the reader from one scene of showing to the next scene of showing.

Show me examples—don’t just tell me about it

Instead of telling:

Mrs. Parker was nosey. She gossiped about her neighbors.

the writer could show:

Turning the blinds ever so slightly, Mrs. Parker could just peek through the window and see the Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. She squinted her eyes so she could get a better view of the tall, muscular man getting out of the vehicle and walking up to Mrs. Jones’ front door. He ran the doorbell. When Mrs. Jones opened the door and welcomed the stranger into her home with a hug, Mrs. Parker gasped and ran to her phone.

“Charlotte, you are not going to believe what I just saw!” Mrs. Parker peeked out the window again to see if the man was still inside.

Here’s another example of show verses telling by Nancy Kress*:

“Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown up in Brooklyn and didn’t want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended a party at their neighbors’ house.”

Showing:

“I told you I didn’t want to go to this,” Linda said as she stood beside John on their neighbors’ steps. “It’s just going to be as lame as every other party we’ve been to since we got here.”

“You used to love parties,” John said, avoiding eye contact.

“Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn’t Brooklyn.”

“No,” He looked at the mountains colored flame by the setting sun, the sky he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had.

He pressed the doorbell.

Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. “It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience.”**

When to tell

After hearing “Show, don’t tell!” over and over, the beginning writer may develop the notion that telling is the leprosy of fiction writing. Actually, telling has an essential place in creating the novel. A more accurate maxim would be “Know when to show and when to tell.”

A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can move along and not bore the reader.

If George is a character in a story, he could do the following things:

  • Have an argument with his boss
  • Drive to his girlfriend’s house
  • Have an argument with his girlfriend

The writer could show the arguments with George’s boss and girlfriend, but tell the reader George drove over to his girlfriend’s house without excess narrative—as long as nothing important to the story happens on that drive.

* From the article “Better Left Unsaid” by Nancy Kress in the March 2006 issue of Writer’s Digest.

** From the book Writing A to Z: The Terms, Procedures, and Facts of the Writing Business Defined, Explained, and Put Within Reach by Kirk Polking.

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