Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Show don’t tell.

We’re all guilty of this. We’ve all done this and some of the more famous writers out there are some of the biggest offenders, but they can get away with it and we can’t.

Additionally, we’ve also all heard this saying before, but what does it mean exactly?

What is showing? What is telling? Is there are time where telling is appropriate? All sorts of questions can arise from one little piece of feedback.

Showing is taking the reader step by step through the scene. Recently, I read this line in a bit of prose: “He also felt the increased desire to have sex.” That is telling. You just told the reader this and expect the reader to go with it.

Showing would be writing about the signals from “he’s” body and letting “he” come to the conclusion that his libido was higher or stronger than normal. To be fair, the writer may not have deemed this to be important enough to show at this point in their story. Also, to be fair, this wasn’t in a story per se. It serves well for an example to use in this post.

But, aren’t there times were telling is appropriate?

Sure, not every little detail in a story is important. Sometimes back story is best handled as telling. Little things the reader must know to understand the significance of what you are currently showing. However, there are times where a flashback would better serve than just telling the back story. Flashbacks must be well timed because they inherently tamper with the flow and any suspense you have created with the currently timeline of the story.

Here’s a sample (let’s hope I don’t screw this up.)


Alvaro sat on a stump clapping his hands and tapping his feet. The heat from the bon fire kept the chill of night safely away. Dinner sat light and comfortable on his stomach. The bathtub gin, however, burned and scraped with every swallow.

Not that anyone could tell that by the way Josiah and Alis tossed it back. Alvaro laughed as the two finished their second bottle of rotgut and leaned on each other when they danced around the fire. They seemed to be tripping over each other and things that only their feet could find.

Josiah screamed to the air, “A long time ago, way back in history, when all there was to drink was nothing but cups of tea…”

Alis, with equal gusto, chimed in and together they slurred their way through the first verse. Josiah spun in a circle flinging his arms out and knocking Alis in the back of the head. Alis lunged to swing at Josiah and stumbled across a log that, Alvaro was certain she would later claim, just “spontaneously” appeared near her feet. Josiah, still singing, and Alis, singing again, both kicked the log.

Alvaro crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. Apparently, that log needed to die for attacking Alis. Alvaro had only seen Josiah like this once before. That night led to some seriously sloppy groping which he hoped wasn’t a sign of Josiah’s best work.

Kendrick slapped his hand between Alvaro’s shoulder blades and yanked the blond into a jerky sway. “For five short seconds remember Charlie Mopps!” The sparkle in Kendrick’s blue eyes rivaled the light from the fire.

Alvaro grinned. This was certainly Kendrick’s element wasn’t it? Laughing, drinking, singing—revelry. Kendrick who’d consumed more than his fair share of the firewater, practically bellowed through the song. Alvaro’s head bounced from side to side hard enough to make him wonder if it would leave his shoulders.

Josiah swung by Alvaro and pointed a finger in the blond’s face. “One…two…three… four…five…” His native Irish accent clung to his words rendering the vowels thick and heavy. He spun around and tripped over his own feet. Falling backward into Alvaro’s lap, he continued singing, “He might have been an admiral, a sultan or a king…”

Utterly surrounded by fools, Alvaro laughed and couldn’t think of a better place to be.

There’s a mixture of telling and showing in this snippet, but without telling you that anyone was drunk, you should at least see that Alis and Josiah are. The important part of this scene is not the drinking, but Alvaro’s sense of belonging. Of course that might not be as powerful as it should be without knowing the full context.

If I’d done a full flashback to the groping, which would have been fun to write, it would have messed with the whole scene instead of enhancing it. As it is, I think it’s more humorous for the reader to imagine drunken groping from a man who makes a point of trying to convince himself that he isn’t smitten with Alvaro.

Going on…

Telling is also appropriate if you are skipping time. Let’s say your fic involves two roommates. You just finished showing us a fierce fight and you need to progress the plot. Do you have to write in real time? Nope. A lot of readers don’t even like that. So, something along the lines off…


For the next two days a stifling air claimed the air. They passed each other in the hallways with wavering civility. They ate dinner in silence. Come the third day…


That’s assuming, of course, that the third day is when you plan on showing again.

The difficult part is that writers tend to not realize it when they are telling and showing. This goes under the heading of rushing. Take your time and lead the reader through your story letting them gaze upon the wonderful world you have created.

Till next time!

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