Showing, not telling

Posted on February 6, 2017

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One of the first things you will be told if doing a course on writing or that you will read in books on writing, is to show, don’t tell.

What does that mean?

As is usually the case these days, this piece was inspired by something I read. It was a self-published book given to me for review. And it proved an excellent example of telling rather than showing. As a result, it was very dull and completely lacking in any reader attachment. Sadly this is a lesson all aspiring writers need to learn before they are writing prose which people will want to read.

I find the best way of describing the difference between showing and telling is to look at film. Some films will use a narrator. And the narrator helps move the story along by providing things like backstory, setting or style.

The narration in the film doesn’t last long. It is usually brief and then we get to watching and listening to the actual film. We don’t have a narrator telling us what is happening the whole time. That would be a serious bore. Instead we see and hear the film’s actual action. The film is showing us the story, not simply telling it to us.

In prose, we do not usually have the advantage of any visuals to show the story. Instead we have to find a way of making words do the work of creating an image in the mind’s eye rather than through the physical eyes.

One of the best ways to show something to the reader is by the use of action.

We could simply tell the reader “a breeze was blowing.” Or we could show the reader by inserting some sort of action or movement: “the breeze kept flicking the hair into her eyes, making her blink.”

OK, that was exactly Hemmingway but hopefully it gave you some sort of mental image. When your writing is creating mental images then you are showing the reader.

Once a reader is ‘seeing’ what is happening, it is a lot easier to keep their attention. To strengthen that attention further, try throwing in more sensory information. We have five physical senses. Experience has shown that using three of the five senses in a passage or scene, will create a more vivid mental image. In my example, we could have perhaps considered the feel of her hair against her cheek, the scent being carried on the breeze and the hair flicking across her eyes interfering with her sight.

The craft of writing is different to other crafts. We do not have a formal apprenticeship. Instead our apprenticeship is served by writing – a lot – and by learning from others. To help with the show/tell distinction, find a book that you previously enjoyed reading. Start re-reading. Take note of when you can find yourself with a mental image or able to visualise what is happening with little effort. Then look at the sentences and consider how the author has just shown you what is happening. Make some notes about it in your writing journal. Don’t have a writing journal? Then start one RIGHT NOW.

In contrast, the piece I had to read for review was almost all telling. It was about as interesting as reading a heap of high school essays. At no time did I feel the slightest engagement with the story and it was a real chore to read to the end.

Over to you – any thoughts of how else you may be able to better ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ the reader?

Ross sig

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Posted in: Opinion