6. Fiction Crimes Part 2: Telling Rather than Showing

Author: Nola Published: about 3 years ago.
Tags: description, showing, telling Category: Writing tips

I recently read a book where the author had to establish several main characters before the main action could progress. However, she did this in a clunky way, with statements like the following (paraphrased):

‘I wish I could be more like my sister Mandy. She’s so compassionate and does such a great job as a wife and mother. I’m just a loser. My life’s a mess and I’m a downer to be around.’

This paragraph tells us a lot of information in a short space, but that’s part of the problem. It’s telling us what the characters are like instead of showing us. It’s usually better to reveal a character through their words and actions. The author could have included one or more scenes that showed Mandy being compassionate (e.g. helping an old lady who’d fallen over). She could have written domestic scenes to illustrate Mandy’s interactions with her husband and children. We could have learned more about the narrator by seeing her at a social gathering, sapping the joy from those around her.

Showing rather than telling also applies to settings. Imagine that your protagonist has to go to a rundown house in a poor neighbourhood. You could have her drive through the area and notice the broken street lamp that’s dangling from its socket or the graffiti on some of the buildings. When she gets to the house, there’s peeling paint on the walls and the lawn is overgrown. You might think of a more elegant way of doing it, but the point is that you’re showing the reader what it’s like rather than just telling them it’s a rundown house in a poor neighbourhood.

If you show rather than tell, it not only improves your writing but gives respect to your readers. You’re trusting them to ‘get’ what you mean rather than spoon feeding them.

Like all writing guidelines, ‘show don’t tell’ can be misused or overdone. There are times when you have to tell the reader some information and move on so that the story doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary description. However, you might find it helpful to read over some of your manuscripts and see whether they would benefit from a little more showing.

I’m still learning to apply this principle and I’d appreciate your feedback on an extract from the novel I’m currently writing. My heroine suffers panic attacks as a result of a previous abusive relationship. However, she’s trying to hide that fact from a fellow she’s just met. You can read one of the scenes here. Do you think I’ve done a good job of showing rather than telling? What could I have done differently? It’s only a first draft, so I’m open to suggestions.

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