Telling and showing in writing is a tricky area and one that authors need to understand in order to fully engage their readers. They need to know how to recognise telling and how to change it into showing,
A lot of the writing in my first drafts are more telling than showing the story, at least in the linking scenes. I don’t know if it’s the same for other writers, but I figure it’s natural to write it that way because you’re basically trying to get the story down. The task for future drafts is to change the telling into showing.
What’s the difference and why not tell?
Telling has a narrator between the reader and the action, so the reader stands outside the action and somewhat remote from the character. Readers are constantly reminded that they are reading, because the narrator tells us that the character did, saw, heard or felt something. Telling also talks about something that happened in the past so the scene has little immediacy. Telling can cover a lot of ground very quickly, so it’s useful for non-pivotal connecting scenes.
Telling is a natural part of omniscient point of view because it’s written from the POV of a narrator rather than the POV of a character, so the reader is always one step removed from the action. This means that authors writing in this POV need to work harder to minimise the telling and remove it from pivotal scenes if they are to fully engage their readers. They also need to understand what they’re giving up in terms of immediacy when they choose Omniscient POV. Telling can be a stylistic choice for those who know what they’re doing, but only skilled authors can do it well and, these days, books that are all telling are generally not very engaging. They simply don’t hold the modern reader.
Showing is more exciting and gripping, and you need that to hold an audience used to the immediacy of movies. This is why omniscient POV has gone out of fashion, and frankly, it’s easier to write good third person close than good omniscient POV.
Telling is what authors use when they give information or explanations. The occasional sentence explaining something is fine, but whole passages of information and explanation is far better given as part of a scene. So instead of saying that Mrs Blobber is a fashion designer of great repute. The author writes Mrs Blobber into scene where the way she is treated by those around her shows that she is a designer of some repute. Other character’s deference towards Mrs Blobber will give that information without the reader having to be told. In the same way, instead of saying that someone visited a drinking establishment in a poverty-stricken area, the author would write the character walking into that area and describing the beggars that accost him and the dilapidated buildings that surround him.
Examples of telling
Sam felt sad.
(This gives no visual or aural image of what occurred in the scene to indicate that Sam is sad.)
George saw a rat running across the street.
(This places George between the reader and the action. Instead of seeing what George sees, they are seeing George see something. This keeps them removed from the action,)
Showing describes what that character sees, hears, smells, tastes, does and so on directly, and the action takes place now. It is more immediate and places the reader right in the action. Rather than saying that a character has some emotion or ‘was doing’ something, the author describes what occurs to make one consider that he or she has such an emotion. So instead of John is angry, we would write, John stomped across the floor, his face red and fists clenched. Showing and active writing are closely linked. Active writing always shows, so instead of saying ‘Terrance was skipping’, we would say, ‘Terrance skipped.’ More about writing in an active way can be found in my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine.
The examples above turned into showing.
Sam’s shoulder’s slumped and his eyes lost their shine.
A rat ran across the street.
An example of a told passage
“The idea was that she would forget Aarod, but as the days passed, his handsome face kept swimming into her mind and the only way she could get it to go away was to remind herself that he was a murderer. When she remembered the last time she’d seen him, she saw Daniel’s face on one of the Magan corpses and the man’s haunting eyes became her brother’s. The sick feeling that accompanied the memory erased most of her longing, but the sickness lessened with time.
On Sunday, Nadima’s day off. She hung out at home trying not to wish that she hadn’t told him not to see her again. She lay on the couch, aimlessly flicking pages of a novel that paled into insignificance next to the excitement of her life since Aarod had arrived in it.”
The same passage shown
“Nadima lay on the couch in the living room, aimlessly flicking pages of a novel that paled into insignificance next to the excitement of her life since Aarod had arrived in it. Part of her wished she hadn’t told him not to see her again because she couldn’t stop thinking about him. Now she had a whole Sunday with no work to distract her from the handsome face that kept swimming into her mind. He’s a murderer, she reminded herself, remembering the Magan corpses.
One of them suddenly had Daniel’s face. The man’s haunting eyes were her brother’s, and the blood from the dagger wound Daniel’s life force spilled by the murderer they never found. Whenever she thought like that, a sick feeling lodged in her stomach, but it still didn’t banish her longing for Aarod.”
Do you see the difference?
Basically I’ve written everything into one scene as if it is happening now.
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