Telling VS Showing – Differences in Style #5

“Show don’t tell” is squawked from pretty much every writerly parapet. I’ve even seen it used as a criticism in descriptive paragraphs or simply when a character thinks “I don’t like pickles” for example- which seems like an odd criticism, cos, believe it or not there are times when stating a fact is a-okay and long-winded ways of saying “I don’t like pickles” are not. Now fortunately there are some people finally waking up and realising that sometimes you need to tell and sometimes you need to show (hello Jenna Moreci). Yet since it’s such a hot topic, I thought it would be fun to address for my style series!

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Showing vs Telling Defined

Well, I thought about all the ways I could explain it and realised I could demonstrate both techniques in just two sentences from one of my favourite authors, Laini Taylor:

“Zuzana arched an eyebrow. She was a master of the eyebrow arch, and Karou envied her for it.”

The first sentence is showing, the latter is telling. What’s magnificent about this is you have a visual image to latch onto and at the same time get an emotional response. It also demonstrates a fantastic use of contrast from one sentence to the next. But if you want an even better example of showing, you’ll have to read on…

Showing Pros and Cons

Pros: showing can create some beautiful, descriptive language. It’s a fantastic method to transport the reader, allows for some emotional insight for the reader and creates tangible relationships within the story. Without any showing, the story quickly becomes very flat. With it, writing comes alive. I mean, again, look at Taylor’s description of Prague:

daughter of smoke and bone“Fairy-tale city. From the air, red rooftops hug a kink in a dark river, and by night the forested hills appear as spans of black nothing against the dazzle of the lit castle, the spiking Gothic towers, the domes great and small. The river captures all the lights and teases them out, long and wavering, and the side-slashing rain blurs it all to a dream”

Cons: still, it can be unnecessary. I’m pretty sure we’ve all read those melodramatic passages that were wayyy OTT! One piece of advice when it comes to any art form is know when to stop. I know how tempting it can be to add that one last brushstroke but step away from the canvass a moment, leave it to dry, and maybe consider you might be done.

Telling Pros and Cons

Pros: It can be used to create a very strong narrative voice and can be an interesting technique for authorial intrusion- but since this is such a contentious issue, I’ve decided to show you some classic examples:

northanger abbeyAusten: “The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity”- this is used for humour at the end of Northanger Abbey  and shows self-awareness of the novel’s construct, poking fun at the fact that you can expect a happy ending and actually breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader this.

jane eyreCharlotte Bronte: “Reader I married him”- I mean, do I even have to tell you why this is good? It’s a statement as romantic and striking as “I love you”- there’s no need to leave it up to ambiguity, especially after all the torment that has gone before.

 

eastofedenSteinbeck: “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies. . . . And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?”- Steinbeck, in my opinion, is one of the masters of authorial intrusion. This moment is the introduction of his villain Cathy in East of Eden and provides a brilliantly stark moment of characterisation and ruminates over what it means. The author’s own struggle to find common ground with this character and actually by confessing this confusion shows the reader just how bad she is.

And there are many more reasons to use telling, such as dropping a *bombshell* and even introducing a moral. To my mind, the absolutism of the rule “show don’t tell” is pretty ludicrous when you think how well this technique can be employed. That said, there are obvious reasons to curb this impulse at times.

Cons: Obviously this can get dull if overused. And if you’re using it for shock value, *newsflash*, this will lose its power very quickly. There’s a reason it should be used sparingly.

Accounting for Differences in Taste

As always I want to draw attention to the fact there are lots of styles and techniques. Like I said earlier, the most important thing is to know when to stop, because, there are times when any technique can be too much. But the reason why I was eager to do this post is that, frankly, whenever I see one of these blanket rules, it grates on me a little. Especially if there’s plenty of evidence that this can work.

Other posts in this series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence

My only preference for this is “everything in moderation”- but I wonder, what do you think? Are you a stickler for the “show don’t tell” rule? Or do you prefer telling? Let me know in the comments!

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58 thoughts on “Telling VS Showing – Differences in Style #5

  1. Satou Johns says:

    I like better the showing than the telling. I think it is easier to tell something and guide the reader than showing them something and for the reader to perceive it and understand it… 🙂 I find annoying when everything is given to me xD

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Bookstooge says:

    I find the problem with “telling” is that it allows people who really shouldn’t be writing to write anyway, AND think they’re great authors. In modern books, I do prefer “show” because it helps weed out the writers who actually know how to master the english language from the hacks who just know how to talk.
    But overall, once an author has shown (hahaha!) they know not only how to write correctly, but have a grasp on all the elements that going into it, then I trust them to just “tell” me.

    Bad writers tell because they don’t know any other way.
    Decent authors know how to show things.
    Good authors know how to use both.
    Great authors know HOW to use both and WHEN to use both.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to write your post all over again for you 😉

    Liked by 5 people

  3. etinosa says:

    This was such a detailed post and enlightening to read. Yeah I think everything should be done in consideration. Sometimes in books I get bored when there is too much of showing. Going to read the other posts in this series. Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rebecca says:

    You made some really great points- especially about knowing when to stop. And I definitely agree with ‘everything in moderation’. Showing and not telling is a good rule, but I think it’s one of those cases when you can break it if you need to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Cozy Pages says:

    The mix. The mix of the two is what gets me pulled in. I really dislike constant showing and not enough telling. In hose cases the telling makes me feel disconnected from the characters and this the whole story. Showing pulls me into the narrative more. that said, there are many cases where telling will suffice. I think I would prefer to err on the side of to much showing rather than too much telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Never Not Reading says:

    I feel like people often say an author *should* show rather than tell. Especially when it comes to personality traits and emotions. Austen, for example, SHOWS that Mr. Collins is pompous in the way he acts and talks, rather than telling us “Mr. Collins is pompous”. But I think really the key is that moderation is best. Don’t just tell tell tell about the character. A mixture is probably best.

    Like

  7. Norrie says:

    Such an awesome post!
    I have no issues with telling. As you said, sometimes we need to be told things.
    With first person POV it can be really cool and majes me feel like I’m in the person’s head. I often think to myself that way as well.
    I do like flowery and poetic stuff too. Good balance is what we need.

    What i personally don’t like is story told via dialogue in a big proportion. But I’m sure some others like that. Like in a play for example there’s only talk. I don’t enjoy reading those.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. shai @ cadeunderbooks says:

    This post is fab and I loved how you showed the nuances of great telling and showing, that they both can be used well and not so well. “Reader, I married him.” Yes, such a fab simple loaded line!

    I think when telling veers into not the best writing territory is when it’s a laundry list. “My protag did this, then this, then felt sad, then did something else.” That’s just… boring.

    Like

  9. freds64 says:

    good points. Show don’t tell is good writing advice for beginner writers because we all tend to tell when we first start out, but sometimes it is thrown around as gospel. Once you learn the difference, use whatever method is most appropriate to the scene.

    Like

  10. Angelica (TheBookCoverGirl) says:

    Fantastic post! I definitely do think that there’s a time for everything and r ally it depends on what you’re saying. While I do prefer showing rather then telling, I agree that there are somethings that simply have to be stated. The true art form is definitely learning how to balance the two.

    Like

  11. cagedunn says:

    My view:
    If it’s happening now (in the story), show it action by action;
    If it’s not happening now, tell it in the shortest way possible, and get back to the action (I don’t mean big action, just the character doing things to move the story forward).
    My opinion only.
    That vivid description – that’s not happening now, and it’s not show – it’s static description (= tell) because it’s not being experienced through the senses of the character.

    Like

  12. BrokenTune says:

    The majority of times, I prefer to be shown, not told, simply because it takes a lot of skill to pull off the show for the desired effect. I LOVE Steinbeck. He was able to do it. Same with Austen, but I have found many a book that was just unbearable because the author forgot to show what was going on or show the setting even.

    Like

  13. FranL says:

    There are times when telling can work really well. The examples you gave are great. But often I find writers are better off showing feelings and character traits. For example, if two characters fall in love, I want to see it. I won’t believe in the relationship simply because the book says they’re supposed to love each other. But I think, like all writing rules, there are times when that can and should be broken. Maybe there is a situation where telling me a character is evil is more effective than showing it. It depends on the work, the skill of the author, and what he/she is going for.

    Like

  14. Allan Walsh - Author says:

    I’m with you on this one. I think you need a mix of both show and tell. I find a lot of authors tend to tell too much, but it can be hard to strike a good balance, and then, every reader has there own preferences.

    Like

  15. MichaelK says:

    Another great post! Well done! I am with you in this one, I prefer moderation and use-as-needed. However I find that it’s usually the telling part that tends to get out of proportion.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Carrie says:

    Wonderful post yet again. And again if done right both ways are very useful and needed but sometimes authors do tend to go too far one direction or the other. As someone else said romance you want to see on the other hand some details to crimes and such just tell me the facts and don’t spend a lot of time on it, on the other hand don’t make it so dry that I feel like I’m reading a police report or newspaper either. Much like walking a tightrope to bring a solid story together in the end. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Kaylena says:

    You may see a lot more “showing” instead of “telling” in these latter days because that’s what many publishers are looking for. There is this undercurrent within publishing circles that anything that exposits, tells, or uses passive voice isn’t going to sell- publishers don’t think that readers have the patience for it. It’s unfortunate. I love the way an author’s voice can come through with a bit of telling, as you exposed above. And when an author gets that balance right, it’s magical!

    Like

  18. Marie says:

    I love all of your posts in this series so, so much. I feel like everything is good with a bit of balance, I really like showing but sometimes it just gets too much, same for telling… finding the right balance is hard though, haha 🙂

    Like

  19. (Danielle) Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Ah this is such a great topic to cover! As I have struggled with both at some point when utilized in excess. I put down a book just recently where the author felt the need to tell everything and it felt downright insulting at times as if I was not expected to have any kmag imagination or ability to understand descriptions.

    Like

  20. Ally Writes Things says:

    I feel like both are important for different things! I’ve read a couple books that had basically no telling, only showing, and I was so lost! But too much telling starts to feel like fanfiction haha

    Like

  21. annelogan17 says:

    I couldn’t agree more when you say everything in moderation! If I’ve learned anything from listening to authors speak about their writing, it’s that there are no rules!

    Like

  22. Kat Impossible says:

    Hearing “show don’t tell” over and over again really stressed me out when I first started writing. I wanted to do everything right, but I had no idea how and what I was even doing. To this day, I am not sure what I am actually doing, but you put it all so eloquently in this post! There’s the right time and place for everything.

    Like

  23. Cindy says:

    I hear show don’t tell all the time from my teachers and while I try my best, sometimes I end up doing too much showing. I loved this post though and I’m actually currently reading DOSAB haha!

    Like

  24. Michelle 🌈 says:

    I love this post! For me a good book has a nice balance between showing and telling. It also depends on what they’re telling. If it’s for example ‘he was kind’ I’d prefer to be shown that this character is kind, rather than being told.

    Like

  25. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    I feel like in books you need a decent mixture of showing and telling. With Laini Taylor as much as I love her writing there’s a lot of showing in her books, especially when it comes to the world building, which in Strange the Dreamer meant I struggled to get into the book because there was so much to wade through you know? That being said I think when it comes down to it I prefer showing over telling. After all Laini Taylor is one of my all-time favourite authors! 😀
    Great post. 🙂 ❤

    Like

  26. Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

    I love this breakdown. It’s definitely one of the issues that is often raised by readers regarding certain books too. I find this even more compelling in comic books/graphic novels. Showing rather than telling works so much better in my opinion. Golden age superhero comics tend to tell rather than show (they rarely exploited the artistic medium and over-focused on the dialogues). Again, fantastic post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  27. arubunwritten says:

    I think it’s interesting that you’ve used classic examples for the pros of telling because I guess to me, it’s not how a lot of modern authors/writers use ‘tell’. Bad writing to me is laying out exposition and character by having them describe every detail of their life and moving the plot forward quickly whereas a good writer uses telling to get into characters heads in a way that perhaps could not be done by showing alone.

    A recent example I read is Starfish where although we have first person perspective and therefore are already inside the narrator’s head, the author spent the first 10 pages of the book outlining how abusive Kiko’s (the narrator’s) mother was where it could have been far more nuanced.

    Good telling doesn’t quite feel like telling if that makes sense. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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