This week on The Book Editor Show, Clark and Peter review Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King. Like many books on the craft of writing, it’s full of helpful information with examples. What’s unique about this book is that it contains exercises so fiction writers can apply the writing concepts they learn about. In this post, I’ll share a little of the authors’ wisdom and suggestions on a topic that can be frustrating for many writers: showing and telling.
Show, don’t tell is ubiquitous advice, but the bare admonition doesn’t get you far. What writers need is to distinguish showing from telling with examples and learn when to use them. That is exactly what Browne and King have done.
To illustrate the difference between these modes of writing, they’ve rewritten a passage from The Great Gatsby so that it tells instead of shows. You can compare it with the original which they also include. As the reader, you can experience the effect on the prose, so you can better understand when to use telling and when to avoid it. I won’t include those examples here, but you can read them by downloading the sample of the book through Amazon.
Nothing about the told version of the scene is technically wrong. But the reader can feel the difference between them though most wouldn’t be able to pinpoint why they prefer the version that shows.
To understand the preference, we can look at how showing and telling operate. Telling is narrative summary, that is you find out about the people, places, and things in the story. Author Emma Darwin calls this informing. Showing, which Darwin calls evoking, allows the reader to experience the story rather than hear about it secondhand. Because fiction readers primarily want to be entertained, showing appeals more than telling and should appear more often in your prose.
That is true across the entire story, but also within individual scenes. Author Janice Hardy’s rule of thumb is to avoid explaining anything that the reader can figure out. She also suggests looking for red flag words that indicate telling or explaining instead of showing. Below you’ll find three types of red flags along with examples of telling and showing. Notice that action and dialogue are great ways to show what you’ve previously told.
- To, when, or because used to explain motivation
Telling: He walked up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
Showing: “The water won’t fetch itself,” he said and strode up the hill, bucket in hand.
- In or with used to explain emotion
Telling: Donna walked back from the mailbox with happiness.
Showing: Donna grabbed the envelope and hugged it to her breast. She skipped and said, “This is the best day of my life.”
- Adverbs or adjectives
Telling: She was angry and called him back to the room accusingly.
Showing: “Come back here, right now! I have not finished with you.”
Does this mean you should never employ telling? Nope. Narrative summary is a valuable tool in your arsenal, but you should use it sparingly. Writers new to the craft of fiction often overuse telling and underuse showing. Still, here are some instances when you might use telling to your advantage.
- Change the rhythm and tone of the prose. Unending action and dialogue can become as monotonous as telling. Provide your reader with variety.
- Give the reader a moment to catch their breath and allow them to take in and what they’ve just witnessed.
- A shortcut, as James Scott Bell puts it, that helps you to get to the meaty part of a scene.
- Cover spatial ground: Not every journey needs to be included in a scene. If it doesn’t move the story along, that is bring the character closer to or further from her goal in a meaningful way, then it can be covered in summary.
- Convey spans of time: You can demonstrate a progression (like montage in a film) so the reader sees the trajectory your character or story is taking. Browne and King give an example of a woman who settles into a new environment over time or a series of races. This also helps you avoid repetitive action.
- Increase the psychic distance between the reader and the story.
For other instances when telling is better, check out this post.
Your Mission for the Week
Grab a copy of Self-Editing for Writers (or read the sample) and try the showing and telling exercises at the end of the first chapter. Compare your answers the authors’ and record what you notice.
Read scenes from another author’s work. Is there telling you would alter based on what you’ve read here? What about showing?
Now assess the balance of telling and showing in your manuscript. Read twenty pages and highlight the narrative summary you find. Does most of the story take place in scene? Do you need to convert sections of narrative telling to showing? Start by changing the passages that deal with major characters, pivotal events, major plot twists, and places where you can reveal more about the characters, setting, and circumstances. Check this section of the manuscript again to see if there is more to do.
Within your scenes, do you need to show more? Look for adjectives, adverbs, and words that indicate explaining motivation or emotion. If you have lots of short scenes with almost no summary, add some telling to give the reader a place to pause and reflect.
Can you spot the telling and showing in your own writing now? Do you have a better understanding of how to use these modes? Is it more confusing than ever? Leave a comment below to let me know.
Leslie Watts is an editor, author, blogger, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: a magazine about cats in sixth grade, staff writer for her college newspaper, editor-in-chief of her law journal, and journaling while writing for an appellate judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com with her writer pal. She lives in Austin, Texas with two rambunctious kids and her patient husband.