Hi writers! We thought we’d kick off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we will be tackling 4 real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about the nuances of showing vs. telling.
QUESTION: The classic writing advice is, "show, don't tell." But is that always good advice? Don't the best novels show AND tell? How do you know if you're "telling" too much, and what counts as telling?
As kids, we loved show and tell day at school. Proudly brandishing a souvenir from a trip or a prized family heirloom, we would capture the attention of our peers and then describe the object’s elaborate origin. Our description of its significance and why it’s special provided a glimpse into who we are and what’s important to us.
This simple presentation uses storytelling and visual aids to stir an interest in an object people would otherwise find insignificant. Show and tell relies on effective storytelling to take us into someone else’s world. Can we learn something from this grade school tradition in our writing techniques?
Writes always hear the mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Descriptions of scenes and dramatization of actions take precedence over the exposition and summary that simply take up space without accomplishing anything in an engaging fashion. Readers love to vividly imagine the characters’ expressions, feelings, and actions that remain unwritten in ink. This ability to stir a reader’s imagination is powerful, letting the story unfold with minimal hand-holding.
A story that simply tells its readers what is happening loses their attention fast. But that’s not to say telling is an inefficient technique that is completely forbidden. Rather, it is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit that can, and should, be used. Just like any craft, the best stories use a variety of tools.
The classic advice should be modified to say “show more than tell.”
Achieving this balance between showing and telling can be difficult. Learning exactly how to “show” a scene requires a lot of practice to begin with, but with practice makes perfect, so keep writing and rewriting to hone these skills. As you master the art of storytelling, keep these guidelines in mind.
Avoid detail-dumping. When you are giving background information, make sure the details are necessary. Don’t overwhelm readers by dumping the entire backstory of a character or society in the first few pages. Weave these details in throughout the story when it is necessary to develop characterization or advance the plot. Write every word with a purpose, and make every sentence worth something to the reader.
Make your writing cinematic. Evoke emotion with your writing and give your characters enough movement so you don’t have to explicitly list personality traits; instead, your readers can just tell who the character is from his or her diction and action, or lack thereof. Use all five senses in your writing so that your readers feel an emotional response without you telling them how they should be feeling.
Put your readers in the scene. This is a good technique to help minimize unnecessary telling. Prioritize first-hand information over second-hand by letting readers see the action happen with their own eyes (or the mind’s eye). No one likes to hear about a past event because they weren’t there when it occurred. There is no emotional attachment to the event or the character. Instead, if you’re giving important backstory, tell it through a flashback. Let the reader experience the scene in real time rather than read about something that’s already happened.
Replace adjectives with actions. If your character goes through a tough breakup or suffers a major loss in the family, they would feel sad. But how sad do they feel, and what do they do with that sadness? Do they completely shut down and withdraw socially? Do they reach out for consolation and company? Do they continue functioning as if nothing happened? Not only do these details convey their sadness, they provide more insight into how the character acts during this sadness than if you simply said they were sad. By replacing adjectives with actions, you achieve the technique of showing, while revealing more about a character than you would otherwise.
Believe in your readers’ abilities. By describing something rather than simply telling it, you’re giving your readers some credit to their ability to imagine what is happening. You don’t have to spell out every single detail for them. Instead, let their imagination take hold as you plant the seeds of emotion and action in their brains with your words. Push them in the right direction, but let them form their own conclusions and interpretations. With each word that adds to their mental scene, they’ll feel more invested in the plot and connected to the characters.
Write. Write. Write. Revising and reworking scenes is the best way to practice this technique. Your first draft might consist of you simply explaining the scene, and that’s okay. On your second draft, start taking out the mechanics of the scene and adding descriptions. The third draft should involve more rewriting, and the fourth and fifth drafts even more so. Making mistakes is a normal part of writing, and only through trial and error will you be able to learn how to perfect the art of showing.
“Show, don’t tell” is important advice to consider, but don’t let it consume your writing. If telling works in the moment and conveys what you need, do that. Additionally, showing doesn’t mean never telling. Explore the nuances of your writing to discover how you can incorporate both into your story or when you need to utilize one technique over the other.
The best writing finds the perfect balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, as writers, we have to channel our inner child and see how show and tell still has its benefits.