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Writer's Digest presents an excerpt from my webinar, "Three Secrets of the Greats: Structure Your Story for Ultimate Reader Addiction."

Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers, interviews me about storytelling, writing, independent editing, and the difference between literary fiction and genre, with an impromptu exercise on her own Work-in-Progress.

Editing client Stu Wakefield, author of the Kindle #1 Best Seller Body of Water, talks about our work together on Memory of Water, the second novel of his Water trilogy.






  • By Victoria Mixon

    So, I’m going to explain to you guys today the difference between showing and telling and why everyone’s always saying to you, “Show, don’t tell!” even while you ransack contemporary fiction in vain for proof of this rule. Wouldn’t you like to know?

    • Showing = storytelling in scenes in which characters move and speak against a described background
    • Telling = storytelling in exposition, explaining to us what the characters are up to rather than letting us see them be up to it for ourselves

    We’ll start with the bottom of the barrel of published fiction and go up the scale until we get to the cream at the top:

    1. Bottom of the barrel: Tell really badly

      This is where a good chunk of contemporary best-selling genre fiction falls. Exposition in cliches with shallow, unoriginal characters and nothing to surprise or alarm the average Walmart shopper.

      I don’t have to tell you who these authors are. They’re all over the PW best seller list.

    2. Close to the bottom of the barrel: Tell mediocrely-to-competently

      This is where most contemporary quote-unquote ‘literary’ fiction falls. Swear to god, people, I keep reading the books everyone’s talking about, and they keep being terrible. Largely exposition, often disorganized (artistes don’t need structure—they have inspiration instead), and flailing wildly at being ‘meaningful’ like old phone company commercials.

      But they keep getting nominated for awards and awarded them because there’s apparently nothing the hell else out there being published by the major publishers, and the award judges rarely, if ever, recognize anything published by Podunk Press out of Green, Iowa.

      In fact, most contemporary novels that win awards they shouldn’t are set in either the New York City area or New England where the award judges’ cocktail crowd can locate them (or sometimes, lately, Chicago, because that’s where Oprah lives). Chang-Rae Lee, McDermott, Oscar Wao, even Richard Powers’ psychiatrist.

      Boy, am I bored with New York City.

    3. Right smack in the middle of the barrel: Show really badly

      This is where most forgotten best-selling fiction of the past falls and a great deal of contemporary genre fiction, including a lot of best-selling crap, also on the PW best seller list.

      Someone’s trying. Sadly, they’re just not trying hard enough. And although it’s poor quality, it’s still more riveting than a lot of yammering exposition that doesn’t even try to engage the reader viscerally except through instructions:

      “Time for you to have feelings now.”

      Make me.

    4. Top of the middle of the barrel: Show mediocrely-to-competently and sometimes even brilliantly

      This is where most genre fiction of the past falls. What used to be dismissed as ‘pulp’ was better-written than most of what we now call, inexplicably, ‘literary.’ I spent the past nine months wading through every single dimestore mystery novel of the 1930s-’60s I could find on the American West Coast, and, wow, I know of which I speak.

    5. The cream at the top of the barrel: Show consistently brilliantly

      This is where most of the greats fall, both mainstream/best-selling/literary and genre fiction of the past and fiction of an even further past when there was no real delineation. Dickens, Austen, Bronte, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Hemingway, Jean Rhys, James Thurber, Chandler, Horace Walpole, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

      Keep on adding the names of the greats, whether they were (like Dickens) best-sellers in their time or (like Jane Bowles) virtual unknowns—they’re pretty much all in this category. Dashiell Hammett made his reputation for writing an entire novel in nothing but brilliant showing, just to prove it could be done and no one would miss the telling at all.

    6. The iridescent light of genius on the surface of the barrel: Tell brilliantly

      This is where a very few of the greats fall, most of that scattered bits of brilliant telling throughout works that are predominantly brilliant showing. Thorton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the only novel I can think of off the top of my head written almost entirely in brilliant exposition. (And even he couldn’t do telling 100% the way Hammett, a lesser writer, did with showing.)

      Raymond Chandler was a nut with a good comedy line, but he only used them to add character to otherwise gorgeous showing.

      There’s a certain amount of James Joyce’s experimental work that falls in this category, but really even he had to rely on scenes for the bulk of what he accomplished.

      Henry James could tell with the best of them, but he also always kept his telling firmly rooted in showing.

      And Camus did some magical stuff with telling by using the tried-&-true techniques of showing to make it just that magical.

    Now, you’re going to notice something fascinating about this scale: Telling badly and mediocrely is on one end, showing is in the middle, and telling brilliantly is on the other end. And even those writers so amazing they could tell brilliantly have rarely gotten away with more than a very little bit of telling in the midst of all their showing.

    In other words:

    • Telling badly—>mediocrely = really, really easy, but fairly useless to the reader

    • Showing badly—>brilliantly = not easy, but not impossible, either, and good—>gold to the reader

    • Telling brilliantly = almost impossible, and usually only gold as seasoning, anyway

    This is the reason, people, you have always been told and will always continue to be told: “Show, don’t tell.”

    And, yes, I really did say even a lot of what’s considered award-winning contemporary fiction falls these days in the worst categories possible without being simply unpublishable. It’s true, and you know it. But you probably don’t know why.

    I’ll explain that in another post.


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    A. VICTORIA MIXON, FREELANCE INDEPENDENT EDITOR

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8 Responses to “The 6 Degrees of Show vs. Tell, Rated by Quality”

  1. Great list here Victoria, and I agree with your formula.

    There’s a few I would add to the “iridescent light of genius…” : Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, (I like his nonfiction more than his fiction), Eudora Welty and Joyce Carol Oates.
    Of course we can’t list them all, or even think of them all, but what do you think of these? Would you put them in the same category, or a different one?

    Thanks for another great post!

  2. Oh, absolutely, Deanna. But notice that, even when you’re a genius, you rely almost entirely on brilliant showing for the bulk of your work. That creates the contrast that makes your brilliant telling leap off the page and smack an epiphany right out of the forehead of your reader.

    All four of the ones you cite fit into both categories of brilliance. Well, pretty much everyone in #6 fits into #5. That’s how they learned their craft so well.

    (And, yeah, Twain was a dreamboat with nonfiction, which is a whole other kettle of fish. But you know what makes Innocents Abroad and Roughing It so fabulous? That’s right. The way he showed them.)

  3. I’m really sick of reading books and stories set in New York City, too, Victoria. And the parts of New England inhabited only by rich folks, e.g. those in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories. Chang-rae Lee’s latest book did not impress me at all even when he moved the location to Italy. Too much melodrama and coincidence.

    It’s kind of disheartening to read the books at the top of the bestseller lists today. Dan Brown. Stephen King. Nora Roberts. Vince Flynn. Patricia Cornwell. James Patterson. Wait. Did I say “kind” of disheartening? It’s terribly disheartening. 🙁

    We need more really great fiction. I like to read truly good books.

    I love the way you tie your advice to books and authors we know (and if we don’t , we should). I love picking up the books and actually reading the examples after reading your blog posts.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, and thank you for doing it with humor and grace. It’s appreciated.

    And everyone, beginner or advanced, should read your book. I did, and I loved it.

  4. I forgot. I wanted to mention William Trevor. I think he’s the greatest living writer working in the English language today. In my opinion, everyone who wants to write needs to read Trevor. My favorites are “Felicia’s Journey” and “Two Lives.” Trevor can tell gorgeously, though he shows as well. But when he shows, it’s often with only a line or two. He amazes me time and time again. Trevor says that one of his biggest influences was Thomas Hardy, and Hardy was certainly a “teller,” though Trevor seems to have loved Hardy for the same reason I do – his tragedy. Oh, if I could write like William Trevor, I could die happy! He does more with one line than the bestselling authors do in their whole books. He can break your heart in fifteen words or less. His prose is like Chocolate Decadence – to die for.

    Read him, people, writers or just readers. William Trevor, who is often called “the Irish Chekhov” is even better than Chekhov, in my opinion. Despite all his awards and talent, Trevor is humble. He says his prose is “just prose.” It’s not. It’s really something special.

  5. Thanks for the recommendation, Gabrielle—Trevor just went on my wish list for the holiday.

    And thank you for your kind words about my book! I’m so glad it’s leading you to the novels themselves. They are the real gurus, for all of us.

  6. This is such a great way of laying it out … i love this view of show vs tell. I am struggling with recognizing show vs tell (as i’m sure most new writers do) and i very much appreciate this post. Happy holidays to you 🙂

  7. Hi Victoria,

    Thank you for this useful blogpost. I will keep it in mind next time I write a short story.

    A few days ago, I finished Freedom by Jonathan Frantzen. In the Netherlands (where I live), this novel is presented as one of the best American novels in years. I think it is a great book and I have been thinking about it for some time. The novel has shown me things about art, freedom (of course) and rules/boundaries, about jobs and worklife and businesses, about nature conservancy and sustainability.

    What I would like to know is how well-known Frantzen and his novel are in the US? And in what category of your barrell he would be according to you.

    Thanks in advance,

    Karin

  8. Victoria said on

    You know, Karin, Freedom is all over the news here, especially since Oprah named it for her Book Club, but I haven’t read it so I can’t say anything about the category.

    I can tell you Oprah’s taste is not infallible. The last one of her Book Club selections I read was a ridiculous hash of uncontrolled plot elements, random gaps in storytelling, and general amateurish blindness, revealing mostly an inexplicable lack of professional expertise with the craft of writing. She appeared to have chosen it simply because it showcased Chicago, her hometown, and the author was known in New York publishing circles. It’s sad, but that does seem to be the trend in American fiction these days.




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MILLLICENT G. DILLON, represented by Harold Ober Associates, is the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles. She has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb. Read more. . .


SASHA TROYAN is a Professor of English at Montclair University and author of the critically-acclaimed novels Angels in the Morning and The Forgotten Island, both Booksense Selections, tragic and beautiful stories based upon her childhood in France. I worked with Troyan to develop her new novels, Marriage A Trois and Semester. Read more. . .


LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth. Read more. . .


BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s best-selling debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by Pan Macmillan. Read more. . .


SCOTT WILBANKS, represented by Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, is the author of the debut novel, The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster, published by Sourcebooks in August, 2015. I'm working with Wilbanks on his sophomore novel, Easy Pickens, the story of the world’s only medically-diagnosed case of chronic naiveté. Read more. . .


SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway. Read more. . .


M. TERRY GREEN enjoys a successful self-publishing career with her three sci-fi/fantasy series based on her dual careers in anthropology and technology. I worked with Green to develop a new speculative fiction series. Read more. . .


DARREN D. BEYER is an ex-NASA experiment engineer who worked on every Space Shuttle orbiter but Challenger. In Casimir Bridge, the first novel of his debut sci-fi series, Beyer uses every bit of his scientific expertise to create a galaxy in which "space bridges" allow interstellar travel based upon the latest in real theoretical physics. Read more. . .


ANIA VESENNY, represented by Beverly Slopen Literary Agency, is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights, and her second novel, Sandara. Read more. . .


STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited Wakefield's second novel, Memory of Water, and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water. Read more. . .


GERALDINE EVANS is a best-selling British author. Her historical novel, Reluctant Queen, is a Category No 1 Best Seller on Amazon UK. I edited Death Dues, #11 in Evans' fifteen popular Rafferty and Llewellyn cozy police procedurals, which received a glowing review from the Midwest Book Review. Read more. . .


JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with Dunn to develop and line edit her memoir of reconciling liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland. Read more. . .


LISA MERCADO-FERNANDEZ writes literary novels of love, loss, and friendship set in the small coastal towns of New England. I edited Mercado-Fernandez' debut novel The Shoebox and second novel The Eighth Summer. Read more. . .


JEFF RUSSELL is the author of the debut novel, The Rules of Love and Law, based upon Jeff's abiding passions for legal history and justice. Read more. . .


LEN JOY is the author of the debut novel, American Past Time. I worked with Len to develop his novel from its core: a short story about the self-destructive ambitions of a Minor League baseball star, which agents had told him to throw away. Read more. . .


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