What I’ve Learned From Show and Tell

     I will be the first to admit: I am sick and tired of seeing the words Show and Tell. But…at least I have a better understanding of it now, and others have let me know how much our posts have helped them, and that is HUGE my friends.  That was my goal…to help others better understand the concept while I learned myself.
     You see, I’ve been a storyteller since before I could write.  Writing was just a hobby however, something I could do, but not something I saw as part of my life plan.  I was young…and dumb.  In my twenties I attempted to write my first book.  I would sit at the computer for hours and end up with little, and what I did write needed help.  The creativity was there, but I was as clueless about the technicalities of writing as my one year old.  Plot?  Scene and structure?  Show and tell?  I had no idea how to use any of these and I knew I wasn’t good enough so I quit.
     But, a writer’s heart is hardly ever silent.  I always had ideas fluttering inside but I never put them down on paper.  I squelched the creativity, thought writing was too hard and I didn’t have enough time.  I had zero confidence in my ability.  But ten years and much wisdom later, I let the floodgates open and all hell broke loose.
     But much like anything else I put my mind to, I had to understand every minute detail of the process.  I have a severely over-analytical brain that will rip something apart beyond even it’s most basic form and then begin to put the pieces back together.  Sometimes this is bad, because sometimes there really isn’t all that much to it and I make things more complicated than they are.  But it’s how I learn.
     So…as I began the process of writing my current WIP, I wanted to do it right this time.  I wanted to learn the craft.  I wanted to actually finish a book and see it published.  Yet I realized that having good ideas means nothing if you can’t effectively get them out of your head and onto paper and make them work together in a cohesive way. 
     As I researched, one topic I came across time and time again was showing vs. telling.  Apparently, this is the bane of many writer’s existence and the cause of many rejection letters.  As I started examining my own work I realized I did not want to be one of those whose manuscript was rejected because of lack of showing.  Granted…this is only part of the whole…but an important part.
     So what have I learned from all of this?
     I learned that I wanted a definitive answer as to when to use showing vs. telling.  What I got was very little black and white and an ocean of gray and enough contradictions to blog about for a lifetime. 
     Now, there are many rules that are easily followed when writing, but many of the questions that become stumbling blocks for writers have answers only found in the writer himself.  Much is the case in show vs. tell.  If you’ve been looking for a definitive answer too, then I suppose I have just crushed you.
     With show vs. tell, everyone has a different opinion.  Some say all telling should die, and others say there has to be balance.  If I gave the first five pages of my manuscript to twenty writers and asked them to fix my showing and telling, I can guarantee you that they would all have a different viewpoint.
     I can tell you this….I don’t believe in all showing.  Every novel would be a 200,000 word doorstop if we did that.  I do believe that the writer is the only one that can make the choice when to use either technique.  That’s what show and tell are…techniques…methods of relating something to the reader. 
     This is the thing….Writing is an artform.  It is a craft.  It takes practice and study.  Words and technique and style are what a writer has to create with…like a painter has paint and brushstrokes and lighting and vision.  I imagine even Picasso had to figure out how to best blend everything together.  And he did.  His work stands out…identifiable to it’s creator.  And even though he is a renowned artist….some people still don’t prefer his work.
     Writing is the same…there will be agents and editors and readers and other writers who will read your work and say ‘not enough of this….too little of that…change this…keep that.’  Who do you listen too?  Who is the authority?  It can be enough to make you want to beat your head into a wall, but there simply is no GOD of the writing universe with a ten commandments of writing you must follow or be doomed.  It would be so much easier if there were.
     So where does that leave you, the writer who is stuck….staring at pages and pages of words trying to figure out if you’ve chosen them correctly?  In the same place as every other writer. 
     I’m sorry…I know this sucks…And I am still a novice myself, but I can advise this:

  • SHOW emotions through action:  

          She stomped and glared into his eyes, her hands balling into fists.
          What do you know?  She is angry. <== Telling…don’t TELL emotion

  • TELL why:

           She stomped and glared into his eyes, her hands balling into fistsHis kiss was an unwelcome surprise.

  • Use dialogue to show.  Dialogue is excellent for character and relationship development as well as furthering the plot.  Don’t tell the reader a couple had a fight….actually show the fight happening. 
  • READ…and study how it’s done.  Be able to identify showing and telling as you read and see the pattern of how it’s used. 
  • Understand that balance between show and tell can be an excellent way to pace the story.
  • Remember that SHOWING is description.  Don’t overdo it.

          OVERDONE==> She stomped angrily, and glared heavily into his eyes with hatred and disgust, her hands balling so tightly she could feel her nails digging deep into her heated skin.  Blood began to break the surface but she used the pain to control the shock of what had just transpired.  He had kissed her.  An unwelcome surprise.

         *Granted…some people will love this paragraph.  But it could do without the adverbs and many of the adjectives and still say the same thing.  Plus…if every paragraph read like this wouldn’t you get exhausted?

     I hope this helps…It has helped me.  I now see the pattern in my own writing that is necessary for flow and pace.  I see the times when I say too much and when I don’t say enough.  I understand that I need to know what I am trying to convey to the reader before I sit down to write the scene…this helps tons when choosing between show and tell.  I get it now that you often learn about people through observation…so I give my readers captured moments in my character’s lives to observe.  It’s a lot to hold in your head, but once you get it, you GET IT. 
     So don’t give up….hang in there…Eventually, it all really does click.
     Good Luck!


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  1. good advice! i think we all struggle with this at some point, some more than others (ahem, me).

    it's also equally important to remember that sometimes telling is effective. if we showed everything, our manuscripts would be thousands of pages long. not to mention, it would be tiresome – to us and the reader.