Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Basics: Telling v. Showing

You have been working on your story for a while now, and you feel pretty accomplished. However, when you go back and review what you have written, some things don't sound quite right. Perhaps the problem is that you are telling instead of showing.


In this post, we are going to take a cursory look at the difference between telling and showing and discuss why showing is often better.

Telling v. Showing

When you are telling details in your writing, you are literally telling the reader what is happening in your story or what is happening to your characters. Ex: "Samantha Kilna was a rich woman."

When you are showing details in your writing, you are showing the reader what is happening in your story or what is happening to your characters. Ex: "Samantha climbed out of the pool at the country club, her perfectly trimmed red hair flowing gently down her muscular back, and signaled for the pool attendant to bring her a fresh towel."

Now, you may be thinking, "Majesta, both of these definitions are the same! You just changed the words . . . " You would be correct. The reason each word shares the same definition is because telling and showing are both ways to relate a story. The distinction between the two terms comes in the way in which each is utilized.

Which is better: show or tell?

Many writers fall into the trap of telling their stories, which to many of us makes sense; it is called "storytelling," after all. However, telling is often the reason stories fall flat for many readers. Telling can cripple a story's narrative power because telling is basically a shortcut. You heard me correctly: telling is a shortcut.

The purpose of telling in a narrative is to inform the reader. You don't need flowery language or adjectives to simply inform someone of something. Take my example above: "Samantha Kilna was a rich woman." In that six-word sentence, I have informed my reader of Samantha Kilna's social and financial status (because in Western cultures wealth is equated to the upper tiers of a social hierarchy). But is that sentence interesting to read? Do I use that space to convey multiple aspects of Samantha's person and character? No, it isn't, and no, I don't. I have simply told you that she was wealthy.

Let's take a look at showing. The purpose of showing in a narrative is to help the reader experience the action with your characters. As authors, we want our readers to be engaged (i.e. emotionally invested) in our pieces, and we do that through helping our reader experience the plot as though he or she was actually living the story. The key to showing is to guide your reader into being fully immersed in the world you are crafting (sensory details help with that).

Take my example of showing: "Samantha climbed out of the pool at the country club, her perfectly trimmed red hair flowing gently down her muscular back, and signaled for the pool attendant to bring her a fresh towel." In this sentence, I have helped my reader experience Samantha exiting a pool and retrieving a towel, but this is not all that I have done. I have also: a) given physical descriptions of Samantha (red hair and muscular back); b) implied her wealth by focusing on the fact that she is at a country club, has perfectly trimmed hair, and has "servants" (the pool boy) waiting on her; and c) implied that she expects people to wait on her, as is evidenced by the fact that she signals for a towel versus asking for one.

Does this mean that you should be showing instead of telling, all the time? NO! Each has its own purpose. If you need to progress through a chunk of time, telling is your best friend because you can cover a lot of ground in a few words. Utilize showing, though, when you have some aspect of your story in which you really want to immerse your reader.

Keep in mind:

Too much telling, and your reader is getting a superficial story; too much showing, and your reader gets so bogged down with details that s/he loses sight of the actual plot of your story. When it comes to crafting a story, utilizing a blend of showing and telling is always best.


What do you think about showing and telling? 
Do you have a preference for either? 
Let me know in the comments below!

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