Show don’t Tell – Post 2 of 4

showdontellHi there again. This is the second post in a four part series. If you’re looking for any of the other posts, they can be found below.

Post 1: What is “Show don’t Tell”
Post 2: How do we know if we are using “Show don’t Tell”
Post 3: When is it ok to “Tell” instead of “Show” 
Post 4: Showing inner thoughts and other “Show don’t Tell” myths.
Extra : More articles on “Show don’t Tell”

In this post, we’re going to talk about how to know if your writing is using “telling” or “showing.” As we learned in the first post, we usually want to incorporate “showing” in our writing.

So how do we know if we pulled it off? Sure we can read articles, books and posts that tell us all about “Show don’t tell” and we can look at dozens (or hundreds) of examples. But in the end, we need to be able to look at what we wrote and figure out if it’s “telling” or if it’s “showing.”

My suspicion is you could show a piece of writing to two people and one would say its telling and the other would say showing. Why is that? Well, it’s because it’s a bit of an abstract concept and if it were easy to grasp, then we wouldn’t have all those books and articles trying to explain it.

Take this piece of writing (totally made up by the way).

My heart hammered in my chest, my breathing ragged and choppy. Behind me a chorus of howls ripped through the night air. The wolves had my scent and they sounded hungry. I’d never outrun the entire pack. Sweat coated my body, my heavy cotton trousers clinging to me as I ran. Nothing mattered now except getting to the river.

Ok, we might look at this and say it’s a great example of showing a person in a state of panic as they flee from a pack of wolves. The writer shows us how the person’s heart is hammering and they are sweaty and struggling to breathe. They hear the wolves howling behind them and realize they are in danger. So it’s showing not telling…right?

Well, someone else might look at the same scene and say it’s telling. Why? thinkingBecause the writer is telling us the person’s heart was hammering and the writer is telling us about the ragged breathing and the writer is telling us about the sweaty, clingy trousers. Look, there’s telling everywhere!! Of course this is telling not showing…right?

So which interpretation did you have? Is this “showing” or “telling?”

Well, we need to step back for a minute. In order to decide if this is “telling” or “showing”, the first thing we have to know is: What was the writer trying to convey?

If we know what the writer was trying to convey, then we can decide if they did that through telling or showing. Now, I know what you’re going to ask. How in the world are we supposed to know what the writer intended to convey? Well we don’t, but that’s not the point. The point is we are writers too…and when we write, we know exactly what we want to convey.

So we can apply this test to our own writing to see if we are conveying information via telling or showing. Now I wrote that little scene above and my intention was to convey a person in a panic. How did I convey that to the reader? Did I come out and tell the reader the main character felt panic? Did I tell the reader the MC was nervous or terrified?

No, I didn’t directly tell the reader any of those things. Instead I showed the reader a picture of a person panicking. The reader sees an MC whose heart is hammering, they are having trouble breathing and they’re so sweaty, clothes cling to them as they run through the night.

Nowhere in the scene does it tell the reader “I felt so much panic and I was completely terrified.” The reader is left to interpret the panic and fear for themselves. The writer tries to immerse the reader in the scene (by showing them the hammering heart and letting the reader hear the howling wolves) and then the reader gets to feel the panic. As I mentioned in the first post, human beings cannot be told to feel emotional states. We can’t tell someone to feel panic. Humans don’t work that way.

Let’s rewrite the scene, this time with blatant telling.

Blindly I ran through the night – nothing mattered except escape. I was terrified of the super-scary creatures that pursued me. Panic shot through my entire body and I had never been so frightened and horrified in my whole life.

Ughh…now that’s a lot of telling. Look at the way the writer is telling the reader what the MC feels. The MC is terrified, panicked, frightened and horrified of a super-scary monsters. Good grief, could we possibly pack any more in there?

Ok, let’s try something and see how well it works. I want you to feel terrified, panicked, frightened and horrified. Right now. Ready…go!!

Did you get the feels? Are you cowering behind your chair, with your hands over your head, just because I told you to? Probably not. So if we know it’s impossible to tell people to feel something on-demand, then why do we keep putting words like “terrified” in our writing? I don’t know…do you?

Look at the “super-scary monster” part as well. Are you scared of this monster, just because I tell you it’s super-scary? What does it even mean to be “super-scary”? Some people find clowns frightening, others get nostalgic about them. If you want the reader to be scared of the monster, then you have to show the monster to the reader. Show the reader those jagged teeth, with saliva dripping from the jaws and the blood red-eyes that burn like hot embers. Show us how the MC’s throat tightens and their heart skips a beat as the creature bursts into the room. Ok…now we’re getting somewhere. Notice that it doesn’t tell the reader the MC is scared or frightened, but is there any doubt that’s what the MC feels? And the reader will feel it too.

So that’s really the biggest danger of telling. If you find yourself constantly telling the reader what to feel, then you are missing a chance to connect with them. They are not going to feel something, just because you tell them to feel it. If you want them to feel, then you must immerse them in a scene that will invoke that emotion from them. Not an easy thing to do, but with practice you will get better at it. And your writing will be so much stronger because of it.

passfailSo the next time you are writing a scene (particularly if it’s a scene meant to evoke emotion or feeling) try to apply this test:

How did I convey the point to the reader?

If you want to write a scene and the goal is to show the MC is nervous about talking to a cute boy, ask yourself how you conveyed that nervousness. Did you come right out and say something like “Shelly felt so nervous.” Because if you did, then you are using telling.

Instead, you should be showing the reader how Shelly’s mouth feels like cotton and her palms are sweaty. Have here stutter as she tries to introduce herself. Throw in an inner thought from Shelly about how she’s convinced her hair has a mind of its own and is intentionally trying to make her look like the bride of Frankenstein. Paint that picture for the reader and then the reader is going to feel the nervousness, right along with Shelly.

Hope that makes some sense.

Having said all of that though, I’m going to throw in a bit of a curveball in the next post. You don’t always have to use showing. Gasp! What’s that? You mean sometimes it’s ok to use telling instead of showing? Well….yes.

And that’s the topic of the 3rd post in this series.

Have a comment? I’d love to hear them!!

All the best,
JD Burns



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