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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Show VS. Tell in Fiction

Every writer I know has either heard or learned about “showing” in creative writing. When the readers pick up a book, it’s the plot and the voice of the protagonist that hook them. After all, those are the key elements in fiction. However, if the writing is telling and passive, the story falls flat. The readers are less likely to continue reading if the book becomes a tedious task. That goes for other issues such as grammar and typos, but I’m going to focus on showing vs. telling in this post. I’ve listed examples and good and bad in dialogue and narration. 
Showing in dialogue
Bad:
“I want you to stay inside!” exclaimed Mom angrily as she walked up to her.
“No! I don’t want to,” argued Jenny sarcastically as she smiled coyly. “You can’t make me,” replied Jen calmly. 
First, let’s take a look at the redundant and telling (summarizing) dialogue tags. “Exclaimed” isn't necessary when there’s an exclamation mark. "Replied" is also redundant because it’s clear that she is replying to her. Use “said” instead. The adverbs angrily, sarcastically, and coyly just summarize instead of describing the action that could show the readers. 
Here is a reminder. Dialogue tags are linking verbs that connect the dialogue to the rest of the sentence. Their main purpose is to identify the speaker. They should not be used to sum up emotions of the speaker. Actions in conjunction with a vivid, self-explanatory dialogue should convey emotions. Hence, there isn’t a need for any tags unless you need to clarify who’s doing the talking.
Good:
“Jen, you’re not going anywhere.” She pulled her face within inches of Jenny’s. Her voice shook as it reached a peak. “And that’s an order.”
“Make me.” A coy smiled spread across her lips. She raised her brows revealing the glint in her eyes. “If not, I’ll be going out now as planned. Hope you don’t mind.”
Here, notice the lack of dialogue tags. Why? The dialogue itself tells us who the speaker is. Instead of telling us that mom was angry and screaming, the descriptions show us her movements along with the change in her voice. 
Also, Jenny’s dialogue is self-explanatory. It’s clear that she’s being sarcastic. That is supported by the description of her facial expression. Notice that the adverb “coyly” was converted to the adjective “coy.” The difference, in this sentence, is that the adjective strengthens the verb while the adverb “coyly” was just summing up her entire emotion/facial expression.
Showing in narration
Bad: She dropped the coin on the floor. She bent down to pick it up. She got back up fast. She was happy because she even laughed a little.
This is too elementary, repetitious, and obviously telling. Also, this only tell us about her movements and her feeling, not much else.
Good: The wispy bang fell over her forehead as she bent forward. She glanced at the coin hiding underneath the corner of the desk. Her fingers skidded along the white-titled floor and immediately snatched it up. It felt cold to the touch. With the coin secured in her palm, she straightened her posture on her way back up. The corner of her mouth lifted at the corners revealing her pearly whites. Finally. It was about time she's done something right, and she did it without making another goofy mistake. She chuckled. 
First, there is no overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Second, the adverbs/adjectives used was a part of action description. A good description convey the emotion/action by using all five senses so that the reader can have a vivid image in their minds. Choose an alternative start to each sentence to avoid being repetitious. Also, mixing it up by using various-length and differently structured sentences help avoid repetition and give the writing an even flow. 
I hope this post made showing vs. telling easy to comprehend. The examples I’ve used may not have been the best, but I think they did the job nonetheless. Thanks for stopping by, and if you need professional editing service, please click here.

21 comments:

  1. Great post! I think I am always working and improving on show vs tell!

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  2. Another timely and helpful post. Thanks!

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  3. I really appreciate you taking time to share your knowledge of writing. I learn something helpful every time I read your blog.

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  4. Thank you for visiting my blog. It makes me feel so good to know that you take the time to learn and improve your writing. That shows dedication. Good luck with your writing! And thanks for leaving such nice comments. I know that takes time, too~

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  5. Great information and examples. I'm reviewing editor's notes on my ms now and have a few "show don't tell" comments.

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  6. We run into trouble if - just suppose - we are writing a story set in a time/place/culture that is strange to most readers. I recently read a line from Hemingway (a master of minimal showing) that said Ezra Pound's Parisian flat was 'heated by a stove'. What does that mean to Americans born since 1970? What sort of stove? How can I picture it? I'm afraid Hemingway's reluctance to tell us more will mean his work becomes increasingly inaccessible as time goes by.

    We must find ways to 'tell' sometimes, and I wonder if the last example might not be one of them. It is fine if the incident is significant, but what if it is intended to simply to create a break? Then an involved 'show' might be out of place.

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  7. Excellent post! I only hope that some published and soon to be published writers get to read it. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. This has to be one of your best posts. The telling and passive writing is everywhere in bad books these days. What Jacqueline is saying is partly true. There has to be some telling. However, that's missing the point. I think this post was written to teach "how to show" methods, not saying everything has to be shown. I dearly hope more writers would read posts like these because I'm getting tired of reading self indulgent books written by writers who refuse to learn. Woof!

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  9. There's no harm in a combination of showing and telling. If we insist on all following the rules, our writing can become too formulaic and we have no voice of our own. At the end of the day, it's about telling a great story and we should use whatever method allows our readers to fully visualise what is happening.

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  10. I do fall foul of telling often. It's always good to go back and revisit during revising, editing to stop and think about if a viewer/reader can sense the emotion without the 'telling' words.

    Treat it like a movie scene.

    Of course, there will be moments of telling required... but as less as possible will be for the good. :)

    @flickimp

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  11. Dear Jacqueline,

    I understand what you're saying. There has to be some telling in order for the right balance. However, the example you gave was not about "telling" per se. It's about description. The lack of description will leave readers wondering. And in the description, you still need to avoid being too "telling."

    You shouldn't explain the heating system of the apartment by giving a summarizing, telling description that reads like boring info-dump. You should explain by weaving in some kind of an action/emotion/dialogue that expresses as well as explain heating system. A showing, engaging description!

    And the example above was only to teach how to "show." Not that all has to be written that way. Thank you so much for stopping by. I welcome all comments and questions that have us thinking and discussing. It's all about learning!

    Write on!

    Su ^.^

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  12. Sirra, the stove example annoyed me (just a little) because Hemingway had 'showed' us a stove, and obviously thought that was enough. And so it may have been at the time.

    Things are different now. Many people have never seen a kerosene stove, an old fashioned brick stove, a free-standing gas stove etc etc - meaning that the picture Hemingway 'showed' us is fading in places, and that is sad.

    When we are 'showing', we need to be sure that our readers are seeing things through our eyes (ears, noses, fingertips). In an unfamiliar environment, there is so much to convey...

    And then there are the simple 'tellings' we should not be afraid to use (in their place) e.g. "He stepped outside. The rain had stopped."

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  13. Yes, jacqueline. As I've said, I understood what you meant. Some telling is needed. No one here is arguing about that though.... Remember. This is a post is (strictly) for those who are struggling with "showing" because they don't know how. This is to teach how to show. That's the point. No one wants to read a book that's full of telling and passive writing.

    When I see someone who continues to write like that even after being shown how to do it right, I can only conclude that either the writer lacks the ability to learn or they're too stubborn to change. Those people? I just can't help. I'm hoping to reach people who are willing to learn the good habits and skills to improve their writing. And there's nothing wrong with that.

    This may not be the best post ever written, and I may not be the best teacher out there, but this is a very important lesson to learn nonetheless. And again, I agree that there has to be a good balance of telling and showing in all books. But for the sake of this post, let's concentrate on teaching people the skills to show.

    I appreciate your participation in this blog. And I thank you all for visiting my blog. You guys rock!

    Su

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  14. Sirra, we are singing from the same sheet of music, I think. And as for people who WON'T learn, don't they understand that writing is a craft? It's not something you are born with, but something you learn. In your own way, of course, and some of us learn more quickly than others, but you absolutely must think about what you are doing, and try to improve every time.

    I am sitting at your feet, teacher...

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  15. Jacqueline, only if others were as motivated as you were.... Thanks again for your comment! Now, I must try to think about what I'm going to cover in my next post. Hope you come back to read that, too~

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  16. Good illustrations to make your stabby points. Nice :)

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  17. Nice post! The bad examples you showcased, I've had the misfortune of reading all too often. *shakes head* I'm happy Kindle has free preview downloads. heh heh. Next post idea! Passive writing/language/words. Please, please, PLEASE do one. That is my #1 gripe from Indie writer's. "Had been" has turned into a pet peeve of mine and I started counting them. No lie. It's cropped up as much as 8 times in one written page. *shudders*

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  18. Sirra - passive: now that's a great idea for an educative post. As soon as we get away from sports commentator English, we have the opportunity to describe an action in several ways, each with a different shade of meaning. WORD grammar checking not good at distinguishing good from bad.

    How about teasing out for us what passive grammar is, and when we should use it (I'm sure you won't say never...)

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  19. Useful information and great examples. This does not say much but I'm not writing a story (lol).

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