Show Me A Story – Showing vs Telling in Fiction

One of the hobgoblins of writing is the constant admonition to “show don’t tell”. I’ve had criticisms – probably valid – that I do more telling than I should. Certainly the beginnings of earlier cuts of Henchmen had an awful lot more telling than showing, something I think eased back as the book progressed. Earlier editions of the novel placed a much heavier emphasis on telling. In fact, it was due to those criticisms that the book underwent a huge rewrite about a year after it was released. What’s available now is a different beast than what first dropped back ’13.

Still, I hear about showing vs telling every now and then and have taken pains to ease the telling parts of my writing in favor of more showing. Don’t get me wrong, there are still things that need to be told – it is a book after all – but it is quite possible to favor showing information over straight-up telling of information.

So what the heck does all this mean? What is showing? What is telling? It’s a damned book, how am I supposed to show something when I’m effectively telling a story?

As it turns out it’s really not all that difficult, but it does involve weaving information into the narrative. Think in terms of seeding information into events rather than supplanting the events with information dumps. Scribendi actually has some pretty good tips that go beyond the usual “show, don’t tell” request. Among other things they recommend using dialog, engaging the senses, good noun choices, and avoiding adverbs (among other things). I’m not going to rehash it here, they’ve already done a great job, but I do want to explore a couple examples: dialog and word choice.

Using dialog is a good way to disseminate information. If you’re good at it, that is. If your dialog is stilted or chunky, dialog might not be the best way to go. I tend to write dialog based on conversations I’ve had. Somehow or another I’ve managed to memorize vast chunks of conversations over the years and I tend to draw on those when I’m writing. Whether that’s good or bad is somewhat dependent on the reader’s interpretation, but I can at least hold my head up high and say, “I know people have talked exactly like that because I was there when it happened.”

So how could you use dialog to show some information? By throwing in tidbits of information. Take the following exchange between Steven and Wilford toward the end of Arise:

“Subsumed?” he asks.

“She’s Potential Reality, kind of like an engine of creation, he intended to overtake her and make our world his world.”

“Yeah, but subsumed?”

“He wanted to absorb her.”

“You know, I liked this world better when it was just terrorists,” Wilford says with a sneer.

“I know, right?  Find ‘em, shoot ‘em, done deal.”

“A guy could kill an awful lot of bad guys with this gun.  I could make a lot of bad things just go away.”

“Don’t forget the wound healing and probable immortality,” I tell him as I clap him on the shoulder.  “How are we doing?”

“I got most of their patrols, bombs are planted.  That duffel bag full of explosives Jacob kicked down the well really helped.  I think we’re ready to bust this place up.”

“Nice work.  Where is everyone?” I ask.

“I saw Frank dragging Jacob to the elevator earlier.  Not sure where Eve is, but I found a lot of broken guys.  Necks snapped, heads crushed.  I think she might be a trifle pissed.  Haven’t seen your girl, though.”

That little section contains 181 words, but packs quite a bit of information. We (finally) find out what the bad guy’s interest in one of the characters was, that Wilford Saxton has an extreme distaste for the paranormal things he’s seen in general and bad guys in particular. He has a desire to make them all go away and now has the power to do it.. The rest of the team is still moving around, Eve is on a rampage, the whole place is about to blow. We also get a hint that Wilford is quite the bad ass since he managed to kill a lot of people and set bombs at the same time.

I like using dialog to show information like that because that’s how humans actually disseminate information to each other: we talk.

The thing about using dialog is it’s not a one stop shop for showing. You can’t just write an information dump into a single scene and have it make a whole lot of sense. Even the above exchange only delivers its full information packet if you’ve read the rest of the story. Until then, it’s just a couple guys talking about killing a bunch of other guys and preparing to blow something up.

Other things to consider using to show instead of tell is to work with word choice in descriptions. A straight up information dump is major boring stuff.

The dog stinks, but Jessica loves it anyway.

Woohoo! Excitement awaits! How about:

The mongrel shook its matted body and grinned. Jessica wrinkled her nose when the smell of street life hit her, but couldn’t resist the cute thing wagging its tail at her.

The first sentence dropped two important pieces of information: the dog stinks and Jessica loves it anyway. The problem is, that’s a straight information dump. It may be important information but that’s no reason to not give the dog and Jessica a bit of character. It’s not compact information (eight words vs thirty one words), but it is more fun to read. It engages the senses (matted body, smell), gives us a better description of the dog (mongrel, not just a dog), and gives us a hint about why Jessica loved the dog.

Does all this mean that you should never tell in a story? Of course not. There are times when telling has to be done. The key is to keep things short and sweet, drop the information that’s necessary and move on to keeping the story going forward. If there are large information dumps that have to happen, dialog is a good way to accomplish it. Look how Tarantino drops information in any of his movies. Say what you will about Quentin, but the guy can write some damned good dialog.

The whole point of showing not telling is an attempt to keep the reader engaged and a story shouldn’t consist of “they did this and then they did this and then they did this other thing and then that caused this to happen.” Readers want to experience what this is and what this other thing they did was, and what the result of the whole operation was.

That’s showing not telling. It’s simply a process of letting the reader come along for the ride rather than telling them where you just went. When the narrative ceases to be interesting it just becomes tl:dr. Too long; didn’t read.

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5 thoughts on “Show Me A Story – Showing vs Telling in Fiction

  1. Yes! And loved the stinking dog sample – thought someone’d left the scratch and sniff option on in my laptop 🙂

    And of course, unless it’s another character looking on & narrating, the descriptive showing really lights up Jessica’s personality: doesn’t care for stink but likes cute enough to hold her nose 🙂 No telling how far this girl will take a relationship, she appreciates “good” things that much!

    Wanna reblog this but have a post that went up today, so will keep the tab up and try to have this go up tomorrow.

  2. >I prefer telling unconditionally over showing, and I will not be deterred by amount of populist propaganda from telling shamelessly and religiously.

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