Show V Tell
Last week we talked about the showing part in Show v Tell. This week we will take a look at the telling side of the equation.
What is telling? Telling is writing with a style that uses primarily narrative exposition. It is explaining the story to the reader. The writer uses this style to provide the backstory so the reader knows a character’s history or how things led up to current events. Or the writer wants to educate the reader on the villain’s prison history to explain why he is now a serial killer. Or the writer wants the reader to know all about the politics of Whigs to set up the story set in 1700’s Scotland. Generally, telling includes what is known as information dump, which is too much information given to the reader all at once. Telling is usually boring. As Chuck Wendig says, “When executed poorly, exposition is a boat anchor tied to the story’s balls. It drags everything down.”
Telling is supplying information through the narrator to the reader.
The key thing to consider is what is it that the narrator is saying? Is it something that can be expressed visually through action and interaction of your characters? You should probably revise the scene to express that information visually through action and interaction of your characters. Is your narrator providing long-winded information that the reader won’t need to know until chapter six? You should probably insert that part of the information in chapter six. If your narrator is droning on and on about anything, you can bet you are telling, and it’s probably boring your reader to the point of closing the book. That is not good.
That said, do realize that both showing and telling are necessary to convey a story. Novels are a mix of both showing and telling, and you should use both when you write. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader a bit of information. Not every part of a story will require strong imagery and active details. Not every part of a story needs to be shown. But don’t let your narrator run rampant.
I wrote some really bad examples of show v tell for your reading pleasure, in hopes that you might be able to see the difference between the two, and why showing is better than telling in fiction.
They went to the store and saw a funny clown with balloons. The clown had red hair, and black and white suit with giant puffy pink buttons. His face was painted white and he had a huge smile painted on his face with red makeup. His shoes were big and yellow and he had a loud horn which he used to get people’s attention. He blew up balloons. The balloons were all shapes and sizes and also were of many colors. Jim’s favorite color balloon was blue. The clown made the balloons into animal shapes like a dog, and a bird, and a dragon. He was really funny, too.
Jim turned around at the sound of the horn.
“Do you like balloons?” The clown stretched a balloon with his white-gloved hands.
“Uh, sure,” Jim said.
The clown inhaled a huge lungful of air and used it to blow up the balloon. He smiled when the balloon was full. As he wrapped the end of the balloon around a finger to tie it off, the balloon flew away, spiraling around the room while making fart sounds.
Can you see the difference? In the telling section, the narrator is just giving information, while in the showing section you can see what happened. Both showing and telling provide the same information, but as a reader, don’t you like the showing option better?
Next: Showing v Telling clues to look for in your writing.