I also write: you can find all that weird stuff on this blog.
I’ve seen more of those “stop telling when you should be showing” articles floating around in my Tumblr feed, and they got me thinking.
I had responded to an article regarding the whole ‘Show Don’t Tell’ mantra before this year rolled around, and my opinion of it still stands. I think that there’s a place for showing and a place for telling in writing. I also think that professing the whole “only do one and not the other” thing is probably sending the wrong message to young writers.
I understand why the advice is given so readily. I know that a lot of novice writers tend to tell way more than they should, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. Showing is much more difficult and much more time-consuming to do. While I agree that it’s important, and that it can vastly improve your writing, I believe that it’s not something you should strive to do all the time. There are instances where telling is more effective than showing. Aside from pacing, which I explained in the first article, here are a couple of other instances I came up with.
When You Have Something to Hide
Showing is unpacking. Showing is using vivid description (including simile and metaphor), sensory details, and actions to allow the reader to experience the story instead of being told via author exposition. When you do this, you make your writing more interesting, but you also draw attention to whatever it is you’re describing.
This stands out: “Wrapped around his body and held together by hundreds of messy cross-stitches, was a trench coat that smelled like moth balls soaked in cheap beer. The stench was so strong that I found myself plunging my nose into the collar of my own coat before I even reached him.”
A line like this does not: “He wore a tattered trench coat.”
As a reader, you remember the lines of good description where the author takes the time to unpack rather than the lines where you’re just told something.
However, telling can be effective when you’re not trying to draw attention to an aspect of your story. For example, say you have a minor character in the beginning of your story that will end up being a major player later on, but you don’t want the readers to know. You’re going to have to briefly introduce that character in some manner, and then have him slip into the background for a while. You can accomplish this by not giving him a lot of focus, and by proxy, not giving him a shown, memorable description.
This applies to not only characters, but to scenes as well. Sometimes there are incredibly boring things that happen in a story that you as an author is going to want to summarize by telling instead of showing.
As author James Scott Bell puts it, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”
In essence, showing is about choosing what stands out in a story and what doesn’t. Remember when you’re deciding what you should focus on, always ask yourself why. Why is it important that this character, object, or scene stands out?
Tone of Voice
I’m going to say it here, even if some people don’t agree. I think it’s okay to tell tone, and for that matter, pitch of a character’s voice when appropriate.
When we speak, we have “ups and downs”, and even if we don’t understand the language, we can generally tell if someone is asking a question vs. making a joke vs. giving a command vs. being serious based on them. These “ups and downs”, called inflection, are expressed in text through punctuation and by inferring via the subject matter of a conversation.
However, even with these tools, it’s sometimes hard to gauge how a character sounds without being told, especially if the author has something specific in mind or if what a character is saying doesn’t correlate to how they sound.
For example if you have a character who is talking about killing someone, but is overly cheery about it, it may be prudent to mention the tone since it’s not one commonly associated with the topic of murder.
You can also include a word about tone and/or pitch if there’s a specific way the character sounds, like:
Keep in mind that you also have great opportunities to show some of these sounds (depending on what you pick) with great descriptions, again keeping in mind how much focus you want to be put on this character’s voice.
Example: “When he spoke it was like he had swallowed a pail of beach sand.”
From author Francine Prose, “Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out … when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.”
Showing vs. telling is all about the choice of what’s going to work better for your story. Don’t be afraid to show. Don’t be afraid to tell. Just know there’s a place for each.
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Bless the person who put together this post, it ought to be made into a pamphlet for everyone in highschool/college.