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Do you know how to tell, at a glance, that you’re dealing with a new, inexperienced author?
Telling. When the writing is chock-a-block full of telling, it’s a gargantuan, neon clue blaring out: This author is still learning. This author is hacking out the diamonds of good prose with pick and chisel, one cold nugget at a time, from the unforgiving bedrock of bad writing. (This author is me.)
Briefly, telling is a more passive, abstract, and distant writing. It flat out “tells” the reader exactly what the characters are thinking or feeling. Writing, “it was so hot she couldn’t even pick it up” is telling.
Showing, on the other hand, is active and descriptive. Showing would never say “it was hot.” Showing would let the character try to pick up the pan and then drop it, interrupting their important conversation as they swear and run to the sink to run some cold water over their blistered fingertips. (Showing is kind of a jerk.)
The frustrating part about all of this is how I understand the concepts and then can not apply them to my own writing. It seems so obvious. Then I sit down to write my own book and there I am, telling. Or I get feedback from yet another RWA contest and the main issue the judges had with my work? You guessed it. Telling. 200 years ago I would have fit into the author community just fine, thanks. In modern times, not so much.
As an exercise I’ve started finding examples of good showing from the books I read. I’m putting a few in this post so they can also benefit you, if telling is your nemesis.
- Instead of “Richie was scared”:
“All his guts seemed to be rising, coming unanchored. He could taste thick coppery blood in the back of his throat. His eyeballs were starting from their sockets. His mouth hung open, scooping air.” —IT, Stephen King, p. 387.
- Instead of “the music sounded pretty”
“It was in the air and all around. It was playing in the flapping of flags and awnings, in the rumble of distant traffic, the click of heels on the dry paving stones . . . ” —The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman, p. 144.
- Instead of “She’s unpredictable, cruel and warm, and you never know which one it’s going to be”
“That smile, curled up at one corner like it’s tugged by a fish-hook. Those eyes, mean and bright like match tips at the moment of striking.” —The Blue Blazes, Chuck Wendig, p. 14.
- Instead of “Professor Bunce is the most boring academical you could imagine”
“He’s a book full of footnotes brought to life. He’s a jacket made of elbow patches.” —Carry On, Rainbow Rowell, p. 248.
Alright, I can hear you say. Those are all lovely. But what does telling look like? Can’t good writing also include telling? And how do I tell the difference?
First, yes. Good writing is a mixture of telling and showing, where most needed. Some established authors have a telling style, and it’s just their voice. It doesn’t make them newbie authors, because they have already chipped out their diamonds from the bedrock and their diamonds sparkle like telling. And second, telling looks like this:
“It was a terrible battle. The most dreadful of all Bilbo’s experiences, and the one which at the time he hated most—which is to say it was the one he was most proud of, and most fond of recalling long afterwards, although he was quite unimportant in it.” —The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 305.
I’d call this telling, because Tolkien isn’t showing us Bilbo’s reaction to the battle at all. He just says it was terrible and then goes on to add a sly aside about Bilbo’s future war memories and his relative usefulness in the battle. Tolkien is descriptive, poetic, kinda salty, and epic, but he is definitely also an author heavy on the tell.
“They crouched panting for a moment, both sorely wounded. Then Martin dashed the blood from his vision, and with a bellow of rage he charged the wildcat.” —Mossflower, Brian Jacques, p. 355.
This is an exciting battle, the climax of the story, packed full of action. Jacques doesn’t waste pages and pages describing Martin’s reaction to every little move of the fight in a showing way. He lays it out, through telling, as the nemesis and hero strike and react.
Or, how about:
“Within, he felt the balance shift, the weight between life and death tip. And when he broke at last the surface of the black ocean that had threatened to drown him, the only sound he heard, as it burst from his lungs, was an endless scream.” —The Elf Queen of Shannara, Terry Brooks, p. 314.
Not once does Brooks show us what the character (in this case, Walker Boh) is feeling or doing. Instead, he tells us exactly what Walker is feeling, what he’s going through. And it’s riveting, very intense, but also telling. So yes, some authors use telling to great effect.
For extra reading: Some more explanation with excellent examples from Shirly Jump on Foremost Press
And ten tips to help you avoid showing from an editor’s perspective on Scribendi.com