Thursday, September 9, 2010

Myth Busters #2: Show Don't Tell

This is definitely one of the most controversial topics in the writing world today. Show don't tell. You hear it at every turn you take on the writing journey. And yet, aside from learning voice, it is one of the most elusive methods to put into practice. I don't know about you, but I struggle with this more than anything. So what makes me an excerpt on this topic you ask? Because I do struggle and because each moment with my writing, I learn more and get stronger in my technique.

And just why do I have it labeled under Myth Busters?

Because showing and telling isn't as big a deal as so many of us make it out to be. So many of the talk centered around this method is about the showing part. I am going to let them worry about that. Because what about telling? And why does it always get such a bad rap?

For the longest time I made this so much harder than it should. Because not everything can be shown. If you show everything in your novel you are going to end up with a 1,000 page manuscript and with a reader so overwhelmnned they will be in tears.

Than I got this jewel of advice from author Susan May Warren: Telling only has to do with the AUTHOR telling us how a character feels. He felt sad. His sadness overtook him. He let the sadness settle inside.

That is telling. And it is as simple as that.

Really nothing more needs to be said on the showing front, but what about those times when you need to tell and how do you know when you should tell?

You can't show everything because in those moments when you need the story to move forward, you need to tell. Your reader will become emotionally exhausted if you don't. And the way to keep a story moving forward is to tell in certain areas.

When to Tell
~In short snippets to move through a story segment
~When the pace needs to be tightened and the tension heightened
~Right after a great deal of showing, move into a time of telling to allow your reader a chance to breathe.

When you need your story to move at a faster face, there will need to be telling. BUT don't cheat your reader by glossing over emotions. Like Susie said, when you are in a midst of telling, be sure and SHOW your character's emotions. How they are reacting to the scene around them, don't just let it pass them by without giving them the chance to experience it with the character. That is what will make a scene great.

Some memory scenes can be telling, depending on their depth and abilitiy to move the reader. How important is that scene to the story and will it make a difference later? If so, then you need to show it more as a flashback, but if not, keep it short and let the character tell through their thoughts. One way to know if it should be showing or telling: look at how long the scene is. The longer the scene: the more the need for showing.

After a great deal of showing, which takes more words and more time to experience for the reader, your pace will have to be slowed a bit. I am not necessarily talking about as in the forward motion of the character, you could have been working on their internal angst, but I am talking about the overall story. And it get back into the action you might have to do some telling. But don't let it become passive telling. Infuse it with action and strong verbs/ nouns that will keep the tension ratcheted up and the reader reading at a faster pace.

Strong verbs and nouns are your key to any scene, but especially to telling scenes. Because in those words, you are going to take your passive telling to active telling and it will infuse your writing and make it stronger. More interesting to read and leave your reader breathless. It will feel more real and natural and your reader won't even realize you have been telling.

Avoid large pockets of telling. Infuse dialogue, internal monologue and action, because large pockets of telling will bore the reader and give them an excuse to put the book down. So like showing, be sure and give your reader a break at the right moments. The way to know if you need to infuse showing or telling is to read very quickly through your manuscript, preferably in paper and ink format and see how you as a reader pick up on those moments. Let your internal editor disappear for a moment and just focus on the flow of the story. Your reader heart will find those moments of inaccuracy.

So the myth to showing and telling: you can't show an entire manuscript. Telling has to be infused.

And you can't tell an entire manuscript either. It will have no emotion and feeling for the reader, you have to show and you have to tell. You have to do both. It can't be one without the other.

So do you struggle with knowing when you should show or tell? Do you struggle to understand the concept? Do tell, I would love to know. :-)


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I tend to want to tell when showing would be so much better. But it's a learning process for those of us writers who are still new to the journey. :) Great post, girl!

Tessa Emily Hall said...

It seems like everywhere I read people are saying "show, don't tell!" So when I sit down to write, I do my best to make everything shown to the reader... but then while I'm reading someone else's novel, I come across some areas where it was necessary for the author to "tell".

Great post =)


Project Journal said...

OH MY GOODNESS!!! My writing teacher just did his whole class on this exact subject it certainly is a small world, eh?

Great post! I might just have to show it to him, if I work up enough nerve....don't know if that's appropriate as a college freshman lol!


Bess said...

Sometimes it just wears you out, as a reader and writer, to constantly be on this roller coaster of emotion where every blip in a character's experiences is shown. Sometimes, to move it along, you just HAVE to tell. I love your post. It really helped simplify things.

I struggle with showing, sometimes. I get "SHOW ME!" by my critters in the places I least expect.

FYI: My new blog address is: A great review! I'm anxious to see what you have to say about the adult book in the series. I love Max Lucado.

FYi: My new blog address is

Vanessa A. Johnson said...

Hi Casey,
That's my biggest problem in writing too, telling vs showing...thanks for sharing your tips. I'm sure they'll help me with my future writings. Thanks for sharing. Have a blessed day.

Casey said...

I know what you mean Sherrinda. I still struggle to understand it all, but I do know that I can pick up telling pretty easy! (at least in other's work. ;)

Casey said...

Tessa, I know exactly what you mean. Finding the right balance isn't as hard as it is made out to be. We tend to make this so much more difficult than it really needs to be. I think when we sit back and relax about this concept, we will be better equiped to learn and apply. Glad the post was helpful, thanks for stopping by!

Casey said...

LOL, that is too funny Hannah, especially since this post has been scheduled for several weeks now. :) Hopefully I didn't contradict your professor. If you show him, let me know. Now that would be an experience I have never been through before. :D

Casey said...

Britt, I am so glad it was helpful! Sometimes, especially for me, just working through and writing about my problems, I often find the simpliest of answers.

Hitting every emotion is very draining and to keep a story moving you do have to tell. And I think all too often we focus just on the showing and forget that telling can be just as vital.

Glad you liked the post and thanks for stopping by today!

Casey said...

Vanessa, wow, I am not sure how helpful it is for a published author such as yourself, but I am thrilled I had a nuggest of suggestion that worked for you. Thanks for coming by today to read it. :D

Pepper said...

Thanks for the post, Case.
Do I have trouble with telling? Who doesn't? ;-)
It's tough to catch it until editing. Or until someone else edits it. (wince) ;-)

Casey said...

Amen, Pepper, I know EXACTLY what you mean. Ouch indeed.