The Write Tip: Why We Tell, Instead of Show in Our Writing

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The Middle Grade Mafia is pleased to welcome back frequent contributor and friend, Janice Hardy. Her posts always provide amazing writing tips and today she is here with another must read!

Why We Tell, Instead of Show, in Our Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I think one of the bigger issues with show, don’t tell, is that it’s hard to know why telling happens in the first place. Sometimes it’s a simple skill issue, but more often than not, told prose sneaks into our work without us realizing it. It’s harder to fix when we don’t know it’s there, especially if it’s the more subtle (and sneaky) variety.

Generally, telling happens when we’re trying to convey information to readers and we don’t know how to do it within the context of the scene we’re writing. It’s easier to back up and summarize instead of dramatize. We tell, because we don’t know how to show.

We have all this information and imagery in our heads and it doesn’t make it to the page, even when we think it does. We know a character is feeling a certain way, but we have trouble articulating that emotion. We know events unfold in a scene, but the exact details of those events are murky and we’re not sure how they play out. We know why characters act as they do and assume our readers will understand the same as we do. Which they don’t, so our stories feel detached and flat, lacking the emotion we feel when we read our own words.

Telling also happens when we need writing shorthand, which is actually a good thing. Our muse is on fire and our writing momentum is strong, so stopping that creative flow to flesh out one or two words will slow or stop the momentum. Adverbs are useful placeholder words that identify an emotion or action until we can come back later and flesh out that idea. A single line of dialogue “said angrily” might become a passionate two-page scene between romantic leads during our revision. We tell, knowing we can return to that scene later and develop it into something profound—except sometimes we forget to go back and do just that. And if we don’t revise quickly enough, we might lose that passion altogether and forget what we’d wanted to write. Often, we also forget they’re just first-draft words and we’re harder on ourselves for “bad writing” than we should be.

It’s also common to tell when we haven’t yet learned the skills to dramatize a scene, or we don’t know what details to put into a scene. Our writing skills are still developing and we don’t know which of the images in our heads to put on the page and which ones to discard.

And of course, telling can also happen if the subject is too painful to write and we need to keep our distance. We know a scene is vital to the story, but showing it is hard. Maybe it’s an emotion we don’t want to personally face, or something we have trouble relating to. Skimming the surface of the emotions or situation makes it easier to bear.

As much as we try to show and not tell, telling is part of storytelling. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to end up in our stories, so we don’t need to fear it. Some of the things we tell will serve our stories and some of them will hurt them–and it’s our job as writers to figure out the difference.

If you’re struggling with show, don’t tell, step back and analyze why you might be telling.

  • Is there something about the story you’re still trying to figure out?
  • Do you lack the skills necessary to dramatize a strong scene?
  • Is the scene emotionally difficult for you to write?
  • Is it just first-draft writing and you’re being too hard on yourself?

Show, don’t tell is so subjective that it helps to consider how and why it gets into our writing so we can best deal with it. If we’re not ready to write a scene, all the advice on red flag telling words and fixing told prose won’t help. If we don’t yet have the necessary skills to show what’s in our head, seeing the scene perfectly in our minds won’t get it onto the page. But when we know why it’s happening, then we’ll know how to approach fixing it.

Do you know why you tell?

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Check out my new book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it), and learn what show, don’t tell means, how to spot told prose in your writing, and why common advice on how to fix it doesn’t always work.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of The Healing Wars trilogy and the Foundations of Fiction series, including Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished DraftShe’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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12 Comments

  1. Great advice as usual, Janice! I just edited a piece for a friend who worried she was telling too much vs. showing. I especially like your last bullet in the list – always a good reminder for us writers!

  2. IngeVdW

    I’m wondering sometimes if it is still useful to use “telling” rather than showing in some instances. I tend to fall into telling when I want to create a certain distance to the events f.ex. I have a moment where the protagonist goes to the father of his beloved and tells the man that he will not marry his daughter just yet, despite her different expectations and his own strong feelings for her. He has some very rational arguments for this decision, but being the man he is, they would be hard for him to articulate and on top they definitely are not the kind of arguments that your future father in law would understand. So I decided to cut the whole conversation and jump from a ‘told’ part where he enters the house, to a part where he walks home all alone, thinking on what he has just done.
    I suppose I could make it more ‘shown’ but it would take me many words to do so properly (and I think it would hardly contribute to the characters, father is not important at all), so to avoid making the story any longer than it already is, ‘told’ sometimes feels more appropriate, or am I totally wrong here?

  3. EmilyR

    Great suggestions about different ways to approach this issue in my writing. I find it’s difficult to parse out necessary telling, especially backstory, from telling that’s hindering the forward movement of the story, especially in the first chapters. I’m trying to eliminate it from my manuscript in revision, which is a useful exercise in itself.

  4. In my current work in progress, I have one alien trying to explain to another alien the human need for privacy. I told the reader that this conversation took two days. I did this deliberately, because I think showing the details of such a conversation would have destroyed the comic momentum I’d built up in the story.

    Also when it comes to explaining concepts like the need for privacy, I’m always wary of digressing into sermons like Robert Heinlein used to do.

  5. Connor

    Wise words. I got stuck trying to flesh out scenes in my first draft and it slowed me down a lot, which was discouraging. Editing as you go, on the first draft, should probably be kept to a minimum.

  6. Janice Hardy

    Nicole, thanks!

    IngeVdW, sure, telling is a useful tool same as any other writing tool. It’s just a matter of knowing when that’s the best tool for the scene you’re working on. However, in your example, I think you could be robbing yourself of the opportunity for a really strong scene. Instead of telling all those feelings after the fact (and keeping readers from seeing that awesome emotional moment), perhaps show the man trying to talk but unable to. Let the subtext of that struggle shine through for a very powerful scene. But if the father isn’t important, and the struggle of that scene isn’t important, perhaps just cut then entire thing. If it had no point, why is it there? You might not even need it.

    Emily, I find considering if the character is saying it or the author helps there. If the character would logically think or say whatever it is you’re telling, then it usually works. But if it’s you adding information for the readers’ benefit, it’s usually telling.

    JC, thanks!

    Christa, thank you!

    Daniel, that sounds like a good example of when telling works better than showing. Readers don’t always want to see every single thing.

    Connor, in most cases, yes, though every writer has their own process. But first drafts are great for brain dumps and seeing how the story unfolds. Once the story is down, then we can edit it as we wish.

  7. Sherri Ashburner

    Such a tricky thing, when tell works and how to show seemlessly…good explanation. I especially needed the remind about first drafts–throw it up and get it out first, make it sing later…Thanks!

  8. Vahlaeity

    You always explain the telling v showing so clearly. The red flags word list on your blog is a great place to start. Fingers crossed I’ll be revising my WIP soon.

  9. Janice Hardy

    Sherri, most welcome 🙂 Yep, first drafts are a lot easier to deal with if we accept they don’t have to be good or perfect. That’s what the second draft is for!

    Vahlaeity, thanks so much. The red flag words are SO helpful. Good luck with that revision (when you get to it!)

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