How do You Know When You are 'Telling'?



Examples of Telling
  • His fingers moved down Mary's neck.
  • Petals fell from the blooming trees on a sunny day.
  • Jimmy hit the smoke alarm, opened the door, and threw the burning pan outside.
Examples of Showing
  • Mary's heart thrummed when his fingers slid down her neck.
  • Pink petals fluttered from the trees like cotton-candy snow in the spring sun.
  • Jimmy slapped the smoke alarm, flung open the door, and tossed the flaming pan out into the rain.
  • Jesse's fingertips brushed the grass. The delicate blades, hardy from recent rains, felt like eiderdown.
Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside.  But he remains outside.  Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop.  The reader will feel the stretch in taffy, maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses.
·Telling is impersonal
Showing is intimate
·Telling is aloof
Showing is up close
·Telling is an essay about a vacation trip
 Showing is going on the trip
Telling is often a simple recitation of he did, she was, I felt.  Too much of this and the reader loses interest. If you find yourself skipping long sections of a novel, chances are those passages are all tell and no show—you've not been invited in, so you pass over the text.

In your own writing, look for clues in words and phrases:  Use of is and was and were, especially there is, there was, and there were; has, had, felt, and thought; uses of always (I always ate ice cream after a good murder); use of and then.

Such words and phrases are not always inappropriate, but their use or overuse warrants a second look.

There are times when Telling is needed.  Telling is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator (whether the narrator is a character, or an implied, external narrator in a third person narrative). It's supplying information: the storyteller saying "Once upon a time", or "A volunteer army was gathered together", or "The mountains were covered in fine, volcanic ash". So it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment. The more I talk about Telling, the more I call it informing.

Telling/informing: The temperature had fallen overnight and the heavy frost reflected the sun's rays brightly.
Showing/evoking: The morning air was bitter ice in her nose and mouth, and dazzling frost lay on every bud and branch. 

How do you show rather than tell?

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A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl
Dreams, is based on her grandmother, the sequel, Follow the Dream,  won the national WILLA Award, and Dare to Dream rounds out the trilogy. In addition a non-fiction book, Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women has just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of the Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing, edits, and blogs. 

2 comments:

  1. Heidi, great information on why we should use 'showing' rather than 'telling' in our writing. I love your explanation:

    "Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside. But he remains outside. Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop. The reader will feel the stretch in taffy, maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses."

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