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Showing vs. Telling

Originally published January/February 2007

Showing vs. Telling—An Introduction

    Showing versus telling is like the difference between watching a movie and having the plot of a movie recounted to you by someone who’s seen it. Or, between reading a book and reading the synopsis or outline. The first is active, experienced first-hand, immediate. The second is passive, second- or third-hand, distant.
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Showing vs. Telling—The First Date

    Telling what happened before the story began is, most often, important to the events going on in our stories, whether it’s what someone does for a living, or events from a character’s childhood (“backstory”). I find that dialogue between characters tends to be a good way to get this information across. Most of the time, there will be other characters who do not know all of our protagonists’ pertinent information. Dialogue is immediate, and the beats in between should be active. But it can still be a stumbling block.
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Showing vs. Telling—Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

    [M]ost of us grew up reading YA fiction. In YA—at least from more than ten or fifteen years ago—it was not at all unusual to find out what the POV character looks like when she stands in front of a mirror and sees all the details of her appearance. But, I doubt even YA writers are allowed to do this any more. You also do not want your character to come across as egotistical by thinking about her gorgeous, thick, long blonde hair. Or his stunningly light blue eyes. So, how do we incorporate character description in a way that shows that feels natural?
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Showing vs. Telling—In the Eye of the Beholder

    All of the genres vary in the amount of physical description the writer should use. In romance, describing what the characters look like is a vital part of the genre expectations. In other genres, the descriptions can be more vague and given out in tiny increments throughout the first few chapters instead of close to the beginning, as it does in romance when the hero and heroine meet. Because I am not as familiar with the expectations of character descriptions in other genres, I recommend doing what I’ve done here . . . analyze recently published books by authors in your genre you think best represent the genre and see how much they describe the characters.
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Showing vs. Telling—Feeeeeeeeeelings . . .

    This is the type of writing that comes natural to most of us. Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it?
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Showing vs. Telling—Do You See What I See?

    When we “tell” that a character saw something (She watched him running down the street), we are holding the reader back from truly being inside the head of the character. When I see something, I am not (usually) cognizant of the fact that I am in the process of “seeing.” I just experience the action going on outside of me. So how does this work in prose?
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Showing vs. Telling—Do You Smell What I Taste?

    SMELL is such a funny word in that it can be used for the action of taking in and recognizing an aroma as well as describing something as giving off an aroma. If you write It smelled, are you saying that “it” did the action of breathing in through the nose and recognizing a scent or are you saying that “it” is giving off a pungency that is unpleasant? TASTE is the same way. TOUCH can mean to actually come into physical contact with something or to be affected emotionally by something. Therefore, we should be as specific as possible.
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Showing vs. Telling—The Sixth Sense

    When we first start out writing, because we’ve read other authors who used it and because we want to make sure our readers know what’s going on, we would write something like this:

    • She wondered how she could have let her cousin talk her into another blind date.

    Which, if you’re just telling a story is okay—you’re the narrator and you are telling the reader what is going on in the character’s head. When we move over into showing, though, we’re getting deeper into the character’s head—narratively:

    • How had she let her cousin talk her into another blind date?

    This opens up another whole debate in the world of writing craft because there are a lot of critiquers and contest judges who have a deep-seated loathing of questions in narrative. But, this forces the issue: which of the above examples is telling and which one is showing?
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Showing vs. Telling—Puppets, Cartoon Characters, or Live Action?

    Simply by replacing “walked” or “crossed” or any generic “go/went” verb with a descriptive verb, the sentence now reveals something about the character—about the emotion connected with the movement—it shows the pace, the body language, the meaning behind the movement, not just the movement itself.

    However, you do not need to do this with every single movement your characters make, otherwise you will end up with cartoon characters who bounce, swagger, float, flit, or perambulate throughout your book. Sometimes, a well-placed “went” or “walked” works fine—especially if it’s in the midst of a lot of other descriptive narrative.
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Showing vs. Telling—When to TELL

    For this last Showing vs. Telling post, I’m going to show you why telling is sometimes better than showing. . .
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