Showing versus Telling


This is my number one pet peeve. I can ignore grammatical errors but not tedious prose. I know this because I’ve gobbled up books with comma problems ad nauseam just because I found the writing intriguing. Fascinate me with your story, and I’ll ignore your misspelled words, misplaced modifiers, and misused synonyms. I will not read something boring.

As a writer, I confront this battle continuously. Have I explained too much? Have I written so much action and dialogue that my reader is exhausted? An author must find balance. I prefer to err on the side of less telling and more showing.

What is showing, you ask?
It’s better if I “show” you.

TELLING: He was hot and sweaty.

SHOWING: Sun beat down on his head, burning through the baseball cap as if it didn’t exist and igniting a trail of sweat that trickled into his collar.

TELLING: She was an attractive blonde.
Can you visualize this person? We have two clues- female and blonde. We want our reader to “see” the character. Is she short? Tall? Fat? Thin? Young? Old? Blue-eyed? If you can’t describe your character, neither can your reader. Paint a picture of the character in your mind. Now write her into the scene.

SHOWING: Natasha removed her passport from the bottom drawer of her desk and flipped open the cover. Current, even if the photo wasn’t as flattering as she’d like. Shoulder-length, wavy blond hair framed a slender oval face with blue eyes, the picture of wide-eyed innocence. Without make-up, she passed for a teenager.

We haven’t answered all the questions, like height, but we have a much better idea of our heroine. In addition, we see an interesting way of “showing” our character to the reader. Instead of saying Natasha is blond and blue-eyed (telling), we make the revelation of her attributes part of the action of the plot. What does she see when she observes a photo of herself? We also learn something about Natasha. She isn’t happy with her appearance in the photo. She thinks she looks juvenile, which is another way to “show” Natasha’s youthfulness without coming out and “telling” the reader.

If you notice cliché descriptions of your characters, you’re telling. Redneck, tomboy, surfer girl, geek, etc. Can you paint a picture using only those words? No. Avoid clichés.

For me, the most boring type of paragraph is the info dump. The author wants to fill the reader in on background information and writes an entire paragraph, or pages, of nothing but details. This often happens in the first chapter. I usually give a book one or two pages to hook me.

As an author, it’s more difficult to assess our own writing. The clue is to look for white space. Do your words cover the page? You’re probably telling.

I highly recommend this book for help in editing~ SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS: HOW TO EDIT YOURSELF INTO PRINT