28 June 2012

Show and Tell

I've been reading a lot of self-published, or indie, books lately. I've also been reading some as-yet-unpublished manuscripts and a lot of flash-fiction on blogs. I really enjoy the creativity and the different voices and genres I've been exposed to through this. However, (you knew there was going to be a "however," right?) I've noticed a trend towards "telling" rather than "showing." By "telling" I mean dry description of the kind you'd see in a history textbook, and by "showing" I mean making us feel the POV character's emotions and giving us the descriptions through their eyes.

For an example, I will use a short passage from my current WiP. If I had written this using "telling," it would look something like this:

When he awoke, he was in his bedroom. It was lit only faintly by a sliver of moonlight that slipped through the heavy drapes. His head ached fiercely. The darkness was a blessing. Even the tiny shred of light hurt his head. He sat up and dizziness overcame him. He groaned and dropped his head into his hands.

And if I used "showing," it would be more like:

When he awoke, he was in his bedroom, which was lit only faintly by a sliver of moonlight that slipped through the heavy drapes. He felt as if a vise were squeezing his temples, trying to crush his skull. He was thankful for the darkness, as even the tiny shred of light cut into his eyes like a knife. He sat up--and the room spun and swung around him like a pendulum. An involuntary groan escaped his lips as he let his head fall into his hands.

See the difference? It's not that obvious at first glance, and I'm not sure if I'm "doing it right" yet, but I think the second version is a much more interesting read. I've tried to make it flow like thoughts do as, even though it isn't first person, we are inside the MC's head seeing his thoughts and feelings. Even in first person, you can fall into this trap. Eg: "My head ached fiercely. The darkness was a blessing. I groaned." This still doesn't "show."

Also, if you notice, the sentences are much shorter and choppier in the first version. These short sentences don't flow easily. In my humble opinion, the way I've put them together in the second version is much better. Now, I don't mean that longer sentences are always better than short. Sometimes, short sentences can convey the emotion better than long ones. But that's a topic for another blog post. The point is to convey the emotion in a way that keeps the reader reading.

What do you think? Do you find yourself "telling" or "showing" in your writing? Do you find it easy to "show" or not? Do you think it's better to "show"?


  1. Don't worry about it, no one actually knows what "telling" and "showing" mean. "His head ached" and "His head throbbed like a bass drum" both say the same thing--that his head hurt--just the latter does it fancier.

    Then you get all those geniuses who say you should "show" through dialog. That makes no logical sense as dialog is obviously telling. I mean "tell" is another word for the action of speaking so really people, come on.

  2. At some point, this comes down to your own personal style. But I definitely think the "show don't tell" writer-wisdom is worth pondering and practicing. If you're no longer taking ten pages to describe the minutiae of your setting, that's a first step. Then, using active, colorful verbs and weaving in description instead of throwing it out in chunks becomes another goal. But that's already getting into my personal preferences. (I also have a problem with under-description. If I remember correctly, you do as well, right? I think part of that issue--for me, at least--stems from my hatred of "telling" sentences and my occasional lack of ideas about how to "show" description instead.)

    I think "showing and not telling" characters' emotions is just as important as doing so with setting. I also personally find this easier than "showing" setting. You just kind of put yourself in the character's shoes and observe how your body and your voice and your train of thought and your facial expression adapt to those emotions.

    Also--might as well mention it--in case you're looking for more blog-flash-fiction to read, Part IV of our "Blog-Epic" is up! I wrote it pretty fast, so I'm not sure if I lived up to "show don't tell" rule. ;) Part II was probably better on that count...

    1. Whoa, that comment was longer than I thought... :O