The 3 Basic Aspects of Showing-Not-Telling

Hey, folks. It’s going to be a light-weight post this week, for two very good reasons:

  1. Last week’s post ate my brain. But at least now it’s written, so the next time someone asks me, “What’s really going on with publishing these days?” I can just give them a Mona Lisa smile and point silently in its direction.
  2. I broke my laptop last week (What do you mean, You’re not supposed to pick it up by the screen?), and it spent the weekend being dismantled on the kitchen table, with the result that its hinges aren’t broken anymore, but now the touchpad doesn’t work. So I’m on a backup laptop my sys admin dug out of the IT museum of his office, and I’m not familiar with this keyboard and I don’t have access to my bizillions of notes I write to myself all the time. Please bear with me.

I asked for suggestions on Twitter last Friday on what I should write about today, and Shane Arthur said, “Write about Show Don’t Tell.”

So I will.

Many months ago, I did a series on the advice column about exposition, which is telling, with the definition of exposition and fine distinctions between exposition and other types of narrative and whatnot. Then a few months ago I did a piece on the six degrees of show-vs-tell rated by quality here on this blog with regard to publishing and the history of literature and why you have to show. And a couple of weeks ago I did another piece on the advice column about how to judge when you really need exposition and simply can’t live without it.

But none of that contains a whole lot of instructions on exactly how to Show Not Tell, even if you wholeheartedly believe me.

Today let’s talk Show Not Tell. Showing is scenes. And scenes can be broken down into the three basic aspects of showing:

  1. Description

  2. When you describe things in scenes—the setting, the environment, the objects, what the characters look like—you’re creating the fictional world in which your story plays out. You’re inviting your readers in. And, although writers used to be able to wax quite lyrical with description, readers nowadays are mostly antsy little devils, raised on television where all the description is delivered in the blink of an eye, so you have to be pretty canny with this.

    The key to great description is the significance of your details. Describe everything in as great a detail as you can, then go through and decide which details are the ones that mean the most to these characters in this world at this very instant of your story. Which ones carry the greatest significance. Get rid of the rest, and use only those. Those are your telling details.

  3. Action

  4. When you show action in scenes—the things your characters do, the ways in which they move, the places they go, the terrible, dreadful, portentous activities they get up to when they get there—you’re creating a physical experience for the reader of identifying with those characters. This is why action scenes must be crafted and written with such extraordinary care, especially nowadays when (ditto) your readers have been raised on television, which employs carefully-rehearsed choreography to keep audience investment in the characters under perfect control.

  5. Dialog

  6. When you create dialog for scenes—the words that come out of your characters’ mouths in their incessant, futile, unending struggle to communicate and understand each other (as well as the internal dialog of their thoughts, but don’t use internal dialog, guys, because unless it’s the whole point of your story it’s just laziness)—you’re introducing your readers to your characters. You’re saying, “Reader, meet protagonist.” And your protagonist is saying, “This is who I am inside, what relationships I have to these other characters. These are the qualities I have with which to cope. These are the things I need.”

    And the pleasure of meeting your characters is, fundamentally, the whole reason your readers are reading this story.

Now, when you write in exposition—when you tell your story instead of showing it—you’re putting yourself in front of your characters and interpreting what they go through for your readers.

Readers don’t like that. It’s talking down to them. They really prefer to interpret for themselves.

But when you strive to write always, always in scenes—when you show your story instead of telling it—using these three aspects of description, action, and dialog, a funny thing happens. Your characters come alive. You, the narrator, disappear, and your readers are suddenly in the room (or on the train or hanging from a parachute or running across a plain) alongside your characters. They’re watching, they’re identifying, they’re listening. . .and all of this adds up to an experience: the experience of your story.

Give that to your readers. That’s why they read fiction.

#EDITINGCHAT: This Thursday, noon to 1:00 pm PST. That’s 1:00 pm MST. 2:00 pm CST. 3:00 pm EST. And, I believe, 8:00 pm GST for all you lovely limeys.

17 thoughts on “The 3 Basic Aspects of Showing-Not-Telling

  1. Shane Arthur says:

    Hey, cool! Thanks for writing this.

    You know, I created a macro with 400 examples of flabby writing. When I hit the macro button, it highlights any instances of these flab words and phrases it finds in my documents.

    I believe if you compiled a list of common phrases that represented telling, you’d be a billionaire.

    Ex. Telling – “He was nervous.” Showing – “He paced the floor, biting his nails, pulse quickening.” (Something to that extent).

    I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds of expressions that represent telling. In this tv-cliff notes age, I’m sure people would be hungry for themdevour them like starving, salivating dogs. πŸ˜‰

    1. Victoria says:

      Now, that’s what I like, Shane. The image of my readers as starving salivating dogs. Like The Birds, only twisted. πŸ™‚

      Yes, I do see the same old standard stuff—much of it cliche. But I’m not sure anyone would believe me if I told them that’s what it is because when a writer writes exposition they do it under the belief it’s simply necessary. It’s always a surprise when I tell them to rip all that stuff out, no matter how badly they think the reader needs it.

      “But how will they know what’s going on?” they ask in dismay.

      Show them.”

      And they get helped along with this confusion by certain publishing industry advice to “break up” scenes with “breather” material. This is an uniformed way of saying, “You need to pace your story for push-pull, but since we don’t know that’s what proper pacing is, we’re taking a blind guess that it’s scene-exposition.”

      It’s not.

  2. Jeffrey Russell says:

    Victoria, a really good idea I heard once – probably from you – is to let the reader get to know my characters the same way I get to know people in real life. I see the way they dress, hear the way they talk and the things they say, and watch the things they do as well as the way they do them. That’s how I form my opinion about them and decide if I want to know more. I’ve never once met someone who, early on, stops and tells me they were born in a small town, raised by a alcoholic maiden aunt, and was always the class clown!

    So I try to keep that in mind as I write my characters, and the scenes they are in.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yeah, Jeffrey, that was me! πŸ™‚

      I’m glad you’re using it.

  3. Karoline says:

    I keep on thinking Ernest Hemingway while reading this post. I don’t know why, I’m not even exactly sure if his whole writing is a great example to this. Learned a lot though!

    1. Victoria says:

      Hemingway was pretty good with scenes, although he hated description and rarely used it. “Hills Like White Elephants”? Not really about the hills.

      The thing Hemingway did was teach himself to write really well in scenes for many, many years before he tackled exposition. Have you ever read his early stories? They can be pretty mind-numbing with the short sentence business, but they’re an excellent example of a writer teaching himself his craft with meticulous patience and attention.

      Then when he turned to learning exposition late in his career, he had the necessary foundation in handling language to do it right. And it’s beautiful.

      This is how every good writer learns to write. The other day i saw a comment by a newbie saying, “Take years to write my book? No way!”

      Um. Yeah. Way.

  4. Victoria, that is the best description of writing description I’ve ever read. Thank you for this!

    Jeffry, you have apparently not met my Uncle Eddie. πŸ™‚

    1. Jeffrey Russell says:

      I’ve never met Uncle Eddie, Deanna, but I get what you’re saying. There will always be people who give out way more information than necessary.

      They do sort of make Victoria’s point about exposition, though, don’t they? πŸ™‚

      1. Victoria says:

        πŸ™‚ That’s a good comparison, you guys!

        Not only is it true for exposition—but if you put Uncle Eddie into your fiction and put all that stuff into his mouth, that develops his character. Particularly if the characters around him have distinctly less (or different things!) to say.

        Uncle Eddie types are fabulous for mysteries because they’re chock full of red herrings, among which you can bury your clues. Agatha Christie used those characters a lot. Remember Major Palgrave in A Caribbean Mystery?

        1. Yes, exactly! Agatha Christie is a favorite, I especially like the characters in The Mousetrap.

  5. PK Hrezo says:

    Perfect explanation. Makes so much sense. I catch myself using adjectives to describe how slimy the jellyfish was instead of showing the effects of what it feels like.

    Using scenes to tell the story is sage advice. Now to just remember it, and employ it always. πŸ˜‰

    1. Victoria says:

      Oh, yes, PK, it’s hard to remember. Don’t panic if you let your first draft go cold and then re-read and find it loaded with exposition. That’s perfectly normal. It’s just leaving placemarkers for yourself where scenes can go. When you plot out your novel scene-by-scene, this doesn’t happen. But some people prefer to give themselves broader milemarkers, and that involves a certain amount of skipping over and then retracing your steps.

      Novels are a heck of a lot of work, and they take a heck of a long time to learn how to do right. Don’t let anybody tell you different.

  6. You’ve made a lot great points. Being able to decide when to show and tell is something I struggle with as a writer. On my last short story, I was trying to show more than tell so I had to do a lot of editing. I’ve tried just wririnf without editing, but I always go back to editing as I go all the time.

    1. Victoria says:

      Aw, do what works for you, editingwise.

      But do show rather than tell. They’re different degrees of difficulty, and aspiring writers need to get really good at the easier technique before they try to get really good at the harder one.

  7. Lily says:

    Thanks for writing this, it helped a lot. I’m currenty working on a little project of mine – a short story – and I noticed I intend to use many paragraphs with descriptions. This happens mostly because I want whoever reads it to see the places and characters as clear as I do, though I’m aware too much description might get boring.

    1. Victoria says:

      The amount of description a reader will roll with has changed over the years—we tolerate much less now than we used to. Go ahead and right it all down in passionate detail. After your ms has gone cold, you’ll go back through and craft each scene for hook, development, climax, and then you’ll see where you need a little extra breather (right before the climax) and where you’re interfering with your own pacing by pausing to point to something shiny.

  8. Lily says:

    Aaaaand, I was supposed to say “tend”, not “intend”. My mistake.

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