SHOWING VERSUS TELLING IN NOVEL WRITING

As a book editor, the most common issue I encounter from newer writers is telling versus showing. Most of you—probably 95%—know exactly what I mean when I mention this common pitfall. And, ironically, I encountered it in my own novel about seven months ago and hired my own freelance book editor to point this out to me. So let’s address this potential hazard of the book writing realm.

First off, what is “showing versus telling?” It’s simple. Or so it seems. Here’s the easiest way to describe it. Showing is when you actually, literally “show” a character doing something and in this way you demonstrate—through action and words—their personality and emotional spectrum. Telling, in contrast, is when you literally “tell” the reader about the character’s experience.

Think about it. When someone tells you about their crappy day, how long does it take before you sort of sigh and zone out, basically at some point no longer listening? (Especially if it drones on and on.) On the other hand, if your friend walks up to the coffee shop, sits down, puts their head down in their hands and weeps openly…now they have your attention. Why is this the case? Simple. That friend has, in a very concrete way, SHOWN you how difficult of a day they are having, and we immediately empathize and want to help them.

Does the above example make sense? I cannot tell you how often I receive manuscripts that contain huge, thick blocks of text that summarize and tell the reader what the character did and said and thought, instead of allowing me to experience the story with and through the character. What readers want, always, from a good novel, from the reading experience, is ACTION. They want to feel the pain of a character’s failure, sense their joy, and fall in love with your character. In order for that to happen, you have to ditch the lengthy summary and “info dumps” and replace that with simple, concise, concrete action scenes that demonstrate who these characters are as people.

Which brings me to another point.

Showing versus telling is key, but only alongside caring and emotion. We need a novel to begin with action, with something happening in real time (meaning not back-story or summary-info-dump) but also, we need to CARE about the character at least a little and we need to experience EMOTION. If you can get us to care about your protagonist (we don’t have to like them, just care; there’s a difference) and make us feel emotions, and then you place us in a state of action, preferably with tension and conflict…well then we are going to keep reading, it’s almost a guarantee.

Back to showing versus telling. Think of novel writing—storytelling—as events that happen to other people in which certain strangers (also known as “readers”) are privy to watch. In this line of thinking, there really should be very little narrative “telling” to the reader of events because the narrator is not supposed to be aware that there is a reader in the first place. Make sense? So in other words: the characters should simply act and talk and do things that they need to do in order for the story to keep moving forward. The characters must act on their own integrity and must act according to their own true nature.

We learn so much more about characters through what they do and say than through narrative “info dump” or summary. Also, info dump and summary do something you never want to do, especially if you plan on trying to get traditionally published in 2015: they massively slow the pace. When we’re in action, the pace is moving. As long we care and there is identifiable emotion, the action will keep us flipping the pages. But once you arrive at those rough patch bumps of huge blocks of “telling text,” you’re in trouble.

Let me be clear: back-story and telling/info-dump are okay to use SOMETIMES, here and there.

Every novel needs back-story. Without it, it would be tough to truly know a character. But try to use back-story as minimally as possible. And definitely cut as much of it as possible from the first few chapters of your novel. Those first three chaps should be action-based as much as possible. This word is your best friend: SCENES. Novels move—plots—like a chain reaction from action scene to action scene. Hook us: Show personality and emotion through action (using tension and conflict), and then add back-story and a bit of telling when we’re hooked deep in the literary cheek.

To end this post I am going to demonstrate showing versus telling using a concrete example. (I’m telling you, this is the most common issue I encounter with new novelists. If you can work on this issue, you’ll be ahead of the curve.)

TELLING:

John thought long and hard about what he’d said to Maria. He felt bad. It was the kind of bad feeling that just sat there, in his mind, not moving, not going away. He had done worse things before. It wasn’t the first time, if he was honest with himself. Thinking of the last time he’d yelled at a woman about money, he began to realize to that things were in a pattern. Would he ever break free?

SHOWING:

John walked into his apartment and slammed the door. He walked over to his bed and punched the stacked-white pillow. Damn it. Hell. He’d done it again. What was wrong with him? Tears started to zigzag down his flushed red cheeks and he looked up, afraid, ashamed, swallowing and breathing slow. A knock blasted through the silence. Scrunching his face up, he stood and exhaled. He walked over to the door, his heart beating out a loud tango. Reaching for the knob, his hand trembled. He twisted the knob and opened. It was her. She looked sad and her face was contorted.

“I love you,” she said.

John said nothing. Instead, he rushed her and they embraced, clutching each other with all the fury they’d been holding back from each other for so long. It’d been five long years. Finally. They were back.

***

Ok, so the above example doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the best writing. The point is simply to demonstrate the “show vs tell” idea. Notice how with telling the pace is slow and we feel bored because it feels and reads like a typical summary? It’s simply information being conveyed. That’s fine for a nonfiction book or a college manual (and it’s fine here and there for fiction, too): but it doesn’t work 95% of the time for novels. Readers need to feel engaged. And in order to feel engaged you need to experience. You experience by being shown, not told. We experience through experience, not through instructions. Give it a shot. And if you need more help, I am available for book editing.

*** I am a developmental book editor. I focus on stuff like “show don’t tell” and much more, like focusing in on plot, structure, pace, character-development, dialogue, etc. Need an editor? I have spots open in late Spring and Summer. Check out my Client page for testimonials, my regular [Friday] blog posts for writing and editing info, and my Editing Services page for rates, descriptions of services offered, etc.

Write on.

“You said it. Let’s edit.”

Michael Mohr


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