My new realization on "Show vs Tell"

Man, I thought I’d have time to post yesterday, but a friend got married and me, my gran and my mom did the flowers for her.

Being a total novice at flower arranging, I thought it’d be easy. It wasn’t. We spent most of the past two days standing, and believe it or not, those arrangements are HEAVY. Add to that the fact that it was a garden wedding with no shade and at the hottest part of a summer’s day, and it all adds up to exhaustion.

But today I’m a bit more relaxed, putting up my feet and reading my new crit partners’ WiPs and suggestions for  mine.

One WiP I’m critting got me thinking about something interesting. We all know about the “rule” show don’t tell. And if you’ve been writing and reading about writing long enough, you’ll know why this “rule” exists.

It draws the reader in more, letting him/her experience the story as close to the same way as the character as possible. Doing that, the reader gets sucked in, which is something any fiction writer worth his/her salt should want.

There’s something else I realized just now, that I thought I should share. Showing events rather than telling gives us as writers more scope in a story. It gives us more depth.

Let’s say, for example, that the main character’s mother died at a young age. You as writer could mention it briefly and let the story progress (telling) OR you could show the effect the mother’s death has on the character. So how does this open up the story more?

By exploring something you would have just mentioned, you might find the internal conflict you didn’t know you needed. You might even find a subplot that makes the main one stronger. You might even find a solution to a plot hole in a surprising place.

So showing strengthens a story in more ways than the conventional wisdom states. Don’t miss a chance to expand your book’s horizons, just because a scene doesn’t seem to fit the plan. It might just be the difference between a good read and a great one, and leaving emotions un-shown is just one huge missed opportunity.

Have you found an unexpected but perfect story element by delving deeper into something a character just mentioned in the rough draft?

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23 thoughts on “My new realization on "Show vs Tell"

  1. I have found the opposite to be just as true. I end up loving stories where there is telling esp. in the opening but, the telling has to be full of voice and really draw me in. And more often than not, a lot of stories open this way with atleast a paragraph of telling or so to give the reader a chance to connect before the showing starts.

  2. Great post! My WIP started as a short story, so this sort of thing happens a lot, actually. I got an entire subplot out of what used to be just a short paragraph in the first draft.

  3. I agree with Annalisa about brief mentions not always being bad. Better to get to the point than draw something out poorly. Story matters most to me and not all tellers do it badly. Showing does help though, sometimes a lot.

  4. I worked on this a lot with on of my earlier novels when I cut out reams of backstory, then had to weave it into the words I kept.
    Ah, sunshine… It's cold and snowy here again…

  5. “Have you found an unexpected but perfect story element by delving deeper into something a character just mentioned in the rough draft?” Yes! Absolutely. By going deeper I found out so many new things about my characters. It actually changed the tone of the entire novel (I had to go back and start from scratch but it was worth it). It takes work, but I think readers really appreciate it when we go beneath the surface.

  6. Then there are stories like Jekyll and Hyde which are so much more powerful because they are mostly told and not shown.

    So each has its place and needs to be used appropriately.

  7. As with anything, moderation is the key. Even though some think that 'show don't tell' is a hard and fast rule, it is only a guideline to follow. Sometimes the story just flows better if you tell me your character 'is speechless with anger' than devoting a paragraph trying to show me the same thing. That way there are no misunderstandings. IMO

  8. A little bit of telling moves the story along, but I want most things to be shown. And showing really opens my eyes to certain aspects of a novel, making what I wrote in an outline more forceful.

  9. There should be an appropriate balance of showing vs. telling to match the type of story. I think there's too much emphasis on ONLY showing these days, though I agree that a lot of older books had too much telling, without actually depicting the scenes in detail as they happened. It also seems like my POV, third-person omniscient, traditionally gets away with more telling than modern readers are used to.

    Sometimes just directly telling the reader something can cut down on unnecessary excess verbiage. I once tried to rewrite an opening passage based on well-meaning advice, and the “showing” that resulted not only sounded completely pretentious and fake, not how I write at all, but also made the character seem completely out of character.

  10. I always seem to find ways to improve my books after they're finished. Often it's while I'm not even reading it. I'll see a movie or read a book that reminds me of something in my own book and I have a “Eureka!” moment. Only by then it's too late because the book has already been submitted!

  11. I agree. I write in layers. The first to third drafts are usually telling, with a little showing. It's easier to get the story down. And it's only the bare bones of the story. When the drafts get ticked off one by one, I find the story within the story. That's largely through changing telling into showing, because it makes us think about the cognition, the emotional intelligence, the motivations – the core of our characters. For me, no plot is as good as great characters.

    Have a super Christmas and lucky 2014 Misha!

    shahwharton.com

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