Show Don’t Tell - a Writer's Guide

 

'Show don’t tell' is an important rule for all writers of fiction. Showing is vivid for the reader, because it unfolds events in real time, as though we’re watching them happen. Telling is when everything is related in hindsight, having already happened. Telling includes backstory, lengthy explanations, and a certain kind of information-based scene setting. Telling is dull for the reader. Showing is what the reader enjoys best. Writing in past tense has no bearing on showing or telling - showing can still happen in past tense narratives. 

 

Showing should always outweigh telling. Sometimes, you can use combinations of showing with a little bit of telling, but it's best to trim the telling right back. Here's an example of how to identify telling, and how to edit it. In the following extract, the telling is underlined. You'll notice that it relates to anything the narrator knows, or is already sure about. The showing, on the other hand, happens as it unfolds, so our narrator is as surprised by these events as we readers are: 

 

'Down by the far side was a woman. She had black hair pulled into a bun. She reminded me of a holo photo Aunt Lucy had at home. My mother, in her younger years: dark, severe, unfathomable. Long before Aunt Lucy went into hospital, I’d taken the picture and thrown it down the waste chute. Whoever she was, she was standing on the same aisle as my mother’s marker. It was the first time I’d seen anybody down here just before closing. I began to walk faster. The further I got, the more the fog muffled my footsteps. When I passed under the last arch, the woman turned and looked at me. Simultaneously, a claxon rang out from the chapel. I jumped. 

 

‘Five minutes until the gates are locked,’ said a digitised voice. 

 

I cursed softly. It had never taken me more than half an hour to find Aunt Connie’s plot before. I glanced back to check the digi display on the chapel clock. The face glowed grey through the twilight. The tannoy was right. 

 

When I looked back, the woman had gone. 

 

I hurried on, the carnations flapping loose in my hand. I couldn’t remember the colour of the grave marker. On a hunch, I headed for where the woman had been. There, by a damp footprint in the Astroturf, was my mother’s marker, hemmed in by the fronds of a wasting plant, a real one, probably put there by Aunt Lucy before planting was made illegal. 

 

Anna Charlotte Bruce, it read, the dates underneath obscured by a thin deposit of muck. 

 

I laid down the flowers and turned to leave.'

 

 

If we take out the telling, tidy up what's left with some minor changes, and keep only the showing, the story will unfold with more pace: 

 

'Down by the far side was a woman. She had black hair, pulled into a bun. She stood in the same aisle as my mother’s marker. I began to walk faster. The fog muffled my footsteps. As I passed under the last arch, the woman turned to look at me. Simultaneously, a claxon rang out from the chapel.  

 

‘Five minutes until the gates are locked,’ said a digitised voice. 

 

I glanced back to check the digi-display on the chapel clock; its face glowed grey through the twilight. 

 

When I looked back, the woman had gone. 

 

I hurried on, the carnations flapping loose in my hand. There, by a damp footprint in the Astroturf, was my mother’s marker, hemmed in by the fronds of a wasting plant. 

 

Anna Charlotte Bruce, it read, the dates underneath obscured by a thin deposit of muck. 

 

I laid down the flowers and turned to leave.'

 

I retained the last little bit of telling, the name on the grave marker being the narrator's mother, because it’s necessary for the reader to know who this woman is for the next part of the story. But, you’ll notice that these changes speed up the flow of the story, and make it more dramatic. The golden rule is, telling is explanation, and explanation slows the story down. Showing, unfolding things as they happen, is more vivid, because this is where the heart of every story is. 

 

As writers become more experienced, it's easier for them to understand how to write dramatic telling which will work: 'The day Julian died was burned into her memory forever'; or 'That spring, one of the new calves was born with two heads - the locals said it was witchcraft', and so on. Avoid telling swathes of backstory (where your character was born, grew up or worked) or listing facts ('The bell tower was built in 1894 out of local stone') to set a scene. This isn't necessary, and it won't be well received by the reader, because it's slow and cumbersome in its detail, and so it takes us out of the heart of the story to concentrate on peripheries instead.

 

Writing in first person (this includes memoir as well as fiction) allows for slightly more telling, in places, than writing in third person does. This is because the first person narrator is speaking from the heart, and so can enliven 'telling' with injections of emotional revelation which the reader will warm to (or perhaps be horrified by!) which will draw them further into the story. This still isn't the same as giving lists of facts, though, so it's always wise to make judicious choices about including lots of backstory or physical environment detail. Any truly important scene can be rewritten to unfold in 'real time' as a flashback or a chapter in its own right, rather than slipped in as a 'told' section. Sometimes, going through your MS and working out which scenes are unimportant and which really need to stay, can show you which scenes to update as showing, and which you'd best leave out entirely. 

 

Here are some more links to help with show-don’t-tell:

 

Show Don't Tell 1 - AutoCrit article 

 

Show Don't Tell 2 - Emma Darwin's blog

 

Show Don't Tell 3 - Invisible Ink article

 

Show Don't Tell 4 - Jerry Jenkins's blog

 

Filter words (related to show don't tell) - an article by AJ Collins

 

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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