“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most well-known pieces of advice for writers – and maybe one of the most difficult to follow. I’ve been thinking about this advice this past week as I edit one of my own books, and I understand just how hard it is to spot for yourself when one of your own passages is “telling”, and just how long it can take to recraft your prose into a scene that has life. I’ve also downloaded a couple of books recently that were absolutely full of “telling” – one of them by a new author, and one by a well-known YA author who has lots of books to her name. Both books had great storylines, but the action slowed right down with page after page of prose that seemed on the surface to be well-written but had no life in it.
What do you think to this paragraph?
Jonathan Rivers was studying his pen of first-class Angus steers when his agent Andy Bowen told him a woman was waiting for him. He bit back a curse. Ever since that stupid article appeared in a magazine a few months previously, telling readers he was looking to marry, a stream of women had turned up at his ranch. He’d given them all short shrift. He caught sight of the young woman waiting at the end of the pens in a city suit, and he assumed she must be another husband-hunter. True, she was a cut above the rest – but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to send her packing, just like all the others.
Technically it’s well-written and the premise is great. What’s going to happen when the ranch-owner meets the city girl? And what does she really want with him? Here’s the scene as it actually appears in A Parisian Proposition, by Barbara Hannay – a writer I really admire:
‘Hey, Jonno, there’s a woman asking for you.’
Jonathan Rivers dragged his attention from a first-class pen of Angus steers and shot a quick sideways glance down the muddy alley of the cattle sale yards.
A woman, dressed in a pale city suit and high heels, hovered at the far end of the pens where the concrete path ended and the sloppy mud began.
He stifled an urge to curse. ‘Not another husband-hunter?’
‘I guess so,’ Andy Bowen, his stock and station agent, admitted with a shrug. ‘But this one’s a cut above the rest. You should check her out, mate.’
Jonno groaned and shook his head in disbelief. ‘I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go through this again.’
‘At least this one’s got class.’ Andy chuckled. ‘And I reckon she’s as stubborn as you are. Classy, sexy and stubborn as the devil. Could be your lucky day.’
The first version is just my second-hand report of an event that’s happened. The real version – Barbara Hannay’s – is a proper “scene” with a sense of setting, and of character. It has immediacy and life. The first version is a lot easier to write and uses fewer words. To write the second version takes time, and it involves exercising your writing brain muscles.
How about this sentence? When I looked up, I realised my cat was stuck in the tree.
The sentence tells you everything you need to know. But wouldn’t it be better to write something like this? I tilted my head right back. For a couple of seconds I saw nothing – just the sun filtering through the leaves – but then there it was: two wide, frightened eyes in a whiskery face, gazing down. My cat was stuck in the tree.
Words like “when” and “realise” are often signs of telling. “When I did this…” “I realised that…”
I realised she was wearing my jumper would be better: I did a double-take. She had my jumper on. The cheek of it!
Here’s a passage from the YA book I’ve just finished reading: The escape pods travelled at speed towards the Mazon ships. I watched their progress on the bridge’s viewscreen. The Mazon were fast advancing just as I knew they would…Only the Mazon ship did its job a little too well. Three, instead of two, of the escape pods closest to it exploded.
A skirmish in outer space. How exciting! What a shame the text is all telling, and not showing. What did the scene look like? Did the escape pods shoot out of the hold, a silver blur? Did cold sweat run down the narrator’s brow as their plan went wrong?
“Showing, not telling” takes a lot of practice to get right. You need to really get into the head of the narrator and BE that person. What do they see? What do they smell? What emotions do they feel? I wish I could have a rule myself to help me spot where my own scenes need expanding to make them much more immediate. One thing that’s really helped me is finding authors I admire and studying their books to see how they’ve done it.
How about you? If you are a writer, do you have any tips on how to show not tell? Is this something you struggle with? If you’re a reader, do you notice when the author is “telling” and the text seems flat?
If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear them!
20 thoughts on “#writetip: Why “show, not tell” is such a hard slog”
Very nice, it’s what I’ve been criticised for, and did not grasp what I was being told till I read you piece. Thank you.
Oh, I’m so glad that’s helped! It really is hard to grasp, and hard to spot when you’re “telling” in your own prose. Thanks so much for your comment!
Annoyingly of course I will now trawl over my own work and probably end up crying in my earl grey. :-)
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:D That’s what I do every day!!
I really enjoyed this post, Helena. As you say, we are all aware of the ‘show don’t tell’ rule but it’s difficult to spot in your own work. I love you examples of both and will be certainly keeping this in mind with my current WIP. Thanks, Helena.
I’m so glad the post was useful, Ellie. Thanks so much for letting me know. Good luck with your wip!
I think you’re quite right about how difficult it is to learn this at first, Helena. Perhaps it becomes easier after reading good examples and practising it in our own writing. A couple of members of our writing group are still struggling to understand the concept which is the first step! I do think, however, that in novels we can often get away with a little bit of telling to move on a not so important scene.
But I absolutely agree about the difference it makes to bringing scenes alive (as in your first example). I often say it’s the difference between Telling us how a character is feeling (sad, happy etc) and Showing us the character’s reactions to a situation so that the reader experiences it too (or something like that!)
Hi Rosemary, I totally agree that sometimes you just have to tell and move on. Knowing when to do that and when not takes a lot of practice, as you say. I like your point about showing a character’s reactions, and not just telling how they feel. Writing is hard work a lot of the time – but so rewarding if you manage to pull it off!
Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment!
Interesting piece, Helena. Many authors (including me!) have to work at making sure they show, don’t tell. I agree the finished product, as you show (!) from your examples, is livelier if shown, not told.
I do have a caveat, however. Most of us work to a certain word count no matter what we are writing, and showing rather than telling does eat up more words. I think a mixture of showing and telling is the answer. The skill lies in deciding what should be shown and what told.
Your focus on the words ‘when’ and ‘realise’ is an excellent way to spot too much telling. I must look out for them in my WIP!
Hi Joan, I agree – showing does use a lot more words. Showing vs telling is a balancing act, you’re right! As Rosemary said in her comment, sometimes you just need to tell the reader something and move on, rather than pad out the whole novel.
Thanks very much for dropping in. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
I often tell people that writing plays helps with writing fiction – and it does. I spent years writing plays and don’t consider any of it wasted – it forces you into ‘show’ mode because to write a play you always have to ‘see’ what’s going on, you have to be there, you have to learn to think visually and to ‘hear’ the dialogue in your head. And you are, essentially, showing pretty much all the time. Once you can do that, it’s a bit easier to get the balance between showing and telling in fiction right. But showing doesn’t so much pad out a novel as replace the telling. You’d be surprised (or maybe not!) by how much more a passage of well written dialogue and/or dramatic action can move your story along without having to explain too much.
Hi Kate, playwriting must be a fantastic discipline. You must have to be able to put yourself in the mind of so many people – the characters you’re writing, the actors who will perform the part, and the audience. No wonder you say ‘you have to be there’. The ability to empathise – to see the world through other people’s eyes – is such a vital part of the showing part of writing, and I can see how you’ve learned so much from writing plays. Thanks for your interesting comment!
This is an excellent post, Helena with great examples of the variations of telling and showing. With your first one I wanted to be more interested in the long written paragraph but then the actual one grabbed my attention straight away! I definitely notice the slower pace where there is long patches of telling in books and try to avoid it as much as possible in my own writing. However, I wonder if there isn’t a place for some style of this writing?
Hi Annika, I think you’re right that there is a place for telling in a novel. The skill is to know when and how much. I’ve just started reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and I’ve noticed he has passages that could be called telling, not showing, interspersed with brilliant dialogue and a few lines of description. He is such a great writer! If I could write like him I would be really happy!
I do think “showing” is a lot harder to master than “telling,” and the best writers know just how much of each to use.
Thanks very much for your comment. That really made me think!
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