Showing Not Telling Workshop by Margaret Midwood
Telling is the use of sweeping statements or oversimplifications that don’t help readers feel for or become engaged with the characters. Example: She is tired. He is sad
Showing instead of telling can make your writing richer, and give more depth to your characters by making the scene or the feelings real to the reader. Example: Instead of she is tired we have - Her shoulders slumped as she dropped down on the worn vinyl chair. And we can add a little image to He is sad - He wiped away the tears clinging to his lashes.
It is the use of words, phrases, and sentences that create scenes in the reader’s mind and help them empathise with the characters. We want our readers to see, feel, smell and taste what our characters are experiencing. We want them to feel the hero and heroine’s emotions, and their pain and to care enough to keep turning the pages.
Telling - Jane was tired, she’d scrubbed the floors of the old church and now it was finished.
Showing - Jane straightened her aching back, dropped the scrubbing brush in the bucket and moved to her feet, every muscle in her body throbbed but the gleam on the church’s old oak floor brought a smile to her face. She’d done it!!
Telling - Remy is angry his company has gone bankrupt.
Showing - Remy slammed the phone down with a resounding bang, and with a muttered oath he swept the files off his desk. Six months on this project and all for nothing, he was through, the company gone. He dropped his head into his hands. How would he tell his father, his employees?
Here are some examples of telling, pick a few sentences and add the senses and details to take it deeper, to enhance the reading experience.
Mary was at the party but she felt unhappy.
The street was dark which made Kate afraid.
This was Jack’s first day at work and he was nervous.
Annie stumbled down the road
It was a hot day.
Examples below by Bill Pangle
The pizza was delicious.
Steam rising up off the melted cheese made my mouth water. The first bite, my teeth sinking into the cheese through the tomato sauce and into the moist crust, made me chew and swallow rapidly. Even the cheese and tomato sauce, sticking to my fingertips, begged to be licked.
He is angry.
Sitting at his desk, his jaw tightened. His eyes flashed heat waves at me. The words erupted from his mouth, "I want to talk to you after class." The final hiss in his voice warned me about his feelings.
The morning was beautiful.
Behind the mountains, the sun peaked brightly, ready to start a new day. The blue sky remained silent yet showed signs of sadness. The wind whispered through the trees as the cheerful sun rose. The birds sang gently by my window as if they wanted to wake me up.
The coffee was enjoyable.
She cradled the mug in both hands and leaned her head over it in the rising steam. Pursing her lips, she blew softly over the clouded surface and let her eyelids drop. Her shoulders rose slightly as she breathed in, and she hummed with her head low. I lifted the tiny porcelain pitcher and poured a brief rotating arch of white into the black depths of my own cup. She opened her eyes, and we looked at each other across the table without speaking.
Here are two showing, telling examples from well-known authors, although writing category I doubt you’d get them through or want to.
Telling: It was foggy.
Showing: - excerpt from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
Telling: The trees are bent over from the heavy ice.
Showing: - excerpt from "Birches" by Robert Frost
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay.
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair|
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
An article in the bloodredpencil blog tells us "Show, Don’t Tell" isn't a hard and fast rule, because often telling is more efficient than showing, and done well, gets the point across. But too much telling, especially when it comes across as author intrusion, can put the brakes on the pace of your story, doing exactly the opposite of what the author intended.
For example, "Mary laughed so hard, she was afraid she'd pulled a stomach muscle. Susie had just told the funniest joke Mary had ever heard." The second sentence isn't needed; it's explaining something the reader would be able to figure out in context.
We often tell our readers exactly what the character is feeling. However, saying "Mary was depressed" doesn't pull the reader in as effectively as showing Mary's actions. Did she stay in bed until noon? Eat a box of chocolates? Not eat anything at all? How did being depressed affect Mary's actions? That's what you need to show.
Another error is telling something, then going on to show it. Let's say you're beginning to understand the "show don't tell" and you do put the action on the page.
Example: After Bill cancelled their date, claiming his aunt was sick, Mary was depressed. She took one bite of chocolate cake, then pushed the plate away.
The second sentence shows what the first tells. If you find this in your writing, you need to use your delete key on that first sentence.
Example: Mary had been looking forward to her date with Bill for weeks, and he'd cancelled, giving some excuse about a sick aunt. She moved the chocolate cake around the plate with her fork, then pushed it away.
The reader gets the information, and can see Mary's depressed without having to be told. You can use the same to show other emotions. Maybe Mary was angry, not depressed, after Bill cancelled. Maybe she throws the whole cake against the wall.
Sometimes, we tell the reader too much as in this example.
Mary twirled up two strands of spaghetti and waited for the excess sauce to drip onto her plate. Leaning forward, she manipulated the fork into her mouth, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. She was a very careful eater because she hated getting stains on her clothes.
There is no need to explain, we can see Mary is a meticulous eater.
Another common place writers need to Resist the Urge to Explain is in dialogue. Too often, we tack on tags or beats that tell the reader what the dialogue has already shown. Are you adding adverbs to your dialogue tags?
"I'm sorry," Tom said apologetically.
Adverbs are often a sign that you're telling something the dialogue should be showing. They're propping up your dialogue, but if it’s strong enough to begin with it won’t be needed.
Check your manuscript for 'emotion' words, especially if they're preceded by "was" or "felt." Are you describing your character's feelings? Don't tell us how your character feels. Show us.
Check your dialogue tags and beats. Are they consistent with the words being spoken? If so, you don't need them. If not, your readers will be confused, trying to reconcile dialogue with the action.
For every action there is usually a reaction and the order should be feeling, action and dialogue = FAD. You have the feeling, you react and then you speak.
A beat is the smallest unit of story telling. It is a piece of the story in which something happens. It could be something dramatic: