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What ”Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, by Agent Mary Kole

Categories: Children's Writing, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns.

Just a quick note: As of summer 2013, Mary Kole
has stopped agenting. Do not query her. That said,
her writing advice below is still great. Enjoy it!

—————–

It’s the old adage you hear in every writing class, workshop, critique group and probably on some things you’ve had edited, rejected or submitted in your lifetime. “Show, don’t tell,” says the editor or agent or well-meaning crit partner. “You know, this really is an issue of showing versus telling,” says the writing teacher. Well, we all know that showing is good and telling is bad. But do we really know what that means?

 


Guest column by agent Mary Kole of
Andrea Brown Literary. Mary is teaching
a webinar on writing & publishing your
kids books, and she is critiquing work
from attendees! The webinar is on
Sept. 23, 2010. Sign up here!

 

Showing v. telling really is an evergreen writing topic that comes up for a lot of people at a lot of times. But that’s the problem. I feel that the common rhetoric is too general. Here’s what it means and, more importantly, why it’s important.

“TELLING” LOOKS LIKE THIS:

Let me give you an illustrative example of showing v. telling. I’m not saying this is the end-all and be-all, or even that well-written, but I’m hoping you’ll see the difference. Here’s telling:

                Katie was so hungry she could eat a horse. She bellied up
to the diner counter, her stomach rumbling. If she didn’t eat
now, she’d die. It felt like an empty pit had opened up inside
her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

                Karl, working behind the counter, looked at the newcomer
with disdain. He really hated people who came up and bossed
him around, even if they were supposed to always be right. He
procrastinated as much as possible with restocking the silverware
caddy. Then he wasted some more time wiping down the counter.
Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much.
“Would you like fries with that?” he asked, ironically, a fake
smile on his face.

“SHOWING” LOOKS LIKE THIS:

Now let’s try showing on for size:

        Katie ran up to the counter and gripped the edge hard. It felt like
a pit had opened up inside her. “A burger, please!” she shouted.

Karl barely registered her from behind the counter. Screw “the
customer is always right,” he thought, glancing at Benny, the
fat manager. He opened the dishwasher and pulled steaming
hot forks out one by one. Then he noticed a coffee stain on the
counter that had to be rubbed twice, three times, four. The new
girl wove in her seat like she was about to pass out. Victory.
Finally, he met her eyes. “Would you like fries with that?”

What about this second example? Did we still get that same information as in the first? Now what about it is different, then? There are a few things. First, we were able to get “hungry” without anybody saying the word. The rush on Katie’s part to get to the counter combined with a little bit of interiority about what she’s feeling and then matched to her shouting out an order. We’re pretty sure she’s hungry or, at the very least, that something urgent is going on.

We get more into Karl’s head here. We get his tension with the manager and his attitude about a common customer service adage right away. He won’t even look at the customer. Instead, he busies himself with painstakingly removing forks “one by one” or the tally of how many times he wipes the counter. These drag out the scene without once using the word “procrastination.” We also get more of Katie’s hunger from his perspective, and how it makes Karl feel. That way, his rehashed “Would you like fries with that?” still comes across ironically, though, this time, it’s because we know what’s been going on in his head much more intimately.

This brings me to why showing v. telling is so crucial, why so many writing teachers and agents and editors and crit partners harp on it: there are many kinds of knowing. One kind of knowing, you get by reading facts in the newspaper. You are a passive recipient of information. Another kind of knowing, the kind you practice every day in your life, is the detective work kind. You have to do some reasoning, some sleuthing, you have to actively pay attention to what’s going on around you — what the world is showing you — in order to figure people out, judge a situation, make your own assumptions and decisions about things.

This is the exact kind of “knowing” that you’re interested in giving your reader. By showing them a scene, showing them what’s going on in a person’s head, giving them information but embedding it below the surface, you’re inviting your reader to put their thinking cap on, to dive into your story and go deeper. The reader had to work in the second example to figure out what’s going on with both Katie and Karl. Guess what? That made them feel like they knew the characters better, it made them more engaged in the story and it gave them a sense of ownership of these people and their scene. Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested. Cool, right? And every author should pick creating that experience for their reader over just telling them stuff with every sentence they write.

 

Mary Kole is teaching her webinar on kids
writing (and offering a free critique!) on
Sept. 23, 2010. Sign up here!

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7 Responses to What ”Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means, by Agent Mary Kole

  1. Tori says:

    I often write in first person, so I find a mixture of both is NEEDED. Sometimes, my character might say, "I was ravenous. That was my excuse." Then she’d get to the counter and the showing clicks into place. She likes that guy behind the counter, but doesn’t get him to serve her; instead the other one– the less attractive one– takes his sweet time about taking her order. She doesn’t mind, for she’s starring at HIM, the cute one. All she’ll do is stare, maybe speak flatly to the guy taking her order, not focusing on what she’s saying. But overall, I think a mixture of BOTH is needed and neither should be thrown out. Give me a book that doesn’t tell ANYTHING . . . oh, wait, you can’t. There aren’t any.

    Sorry for the crappy example. I don’t really write that way. Ha ha!
    I’m interested in what you guys have to say. Please reply!

  2. MrsMusic says:

    I was glad to read Graham’s comment, so it’s not just me who prefers the first version…
    But you know what? These examples are not showing vs. telling. They show close personal narration vs. a more distant POV. The first text is mostly made up of the inner monologue of the characters, interrupted only by a minimum of action. The second text more focuses on action, but still stays close to the thoughts of the characters.
    In the end, the main difference between the two texts is style. And except for one sentence that falls out of the POV ("Finally, he came over to the girl who he didn’t like very much."), the first text is very coherent and dense.
    The second one in my eyes has a lot of noisy action-clutter which does not really contribute neither to the mood nor to the relationship of the characters; it’s just turning away from hearing to seeing: the fat manager, the damp forks, the coffee stain… But we usually have enough visual impressions in our texts anyways, so I don’t really see the point to even focus more on them – except that probably this is a consequence of our video-cinema-tv-flooded perception habits.
    So, definitely, another thumbs up for the first text!
    Sorry, Mary ;-)

  3. Natalie Aguirre says:

    Thanks for the great post. I especially appreciated the examples and your analysis, which shows why the "showing" version works so much better than the "telling" one. You are always really good at explaining things like that on your blog and at the WriteOnCon conference.

  4. Perri says:

    Thanks so much for the post– and for these terrific examples.

    The Showing vs Telling rule definitely helps developing writers avoid cliche and overwrought prose and get into the into the story rather than gliding on its surface. But it seems to me that writers with a certain level of expertise use "telling" like any other tool.

    For example, I’ve been re-reading "The Shipping News" and noticed that Annie Proulx’s first chapter is more or less telling… telling a load of backstory in fact. And it works really well, perhaps because the language itself is so vital and interesting.

    Here’s the opening:

    "Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born iin Brooklyn and raise in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds."

    When I read this, although it breaks so many rules, I feel that I am in the hands of a skilled writer and just go with it.

    So perhaps the "rule" is that if you break the rules, you better be really good at it!

  5. Angela says:

    There are so many rules created for writing. Why can’t a writer just write? Why so many rules? A good story is all that is needed. When I read a book, I’m not looking for errors, or whether the story is told or shown. I personally believe these "rules," are just excuses and a ploy to bring in cash for "confrences," or classes agents like to give for those who are having problems being published. There are so many books published and half that are published are far less than stellar. So it is hard for me to grasp these "rules," and relate them to my writing. I swear every week there is a new, "do this, not that."

  6. You know, I really much preferred the ‘tell’ version, partly because there was a bit of head-hopping going on in the piece and the ‘tell’ style made this clearer and less obtrusive, partly because, on the whole, I have absolutely no problem with writers just telling a story without trying to immerse me in the action. The whole ‘show not tell’ thing seems pretty faddish, part of a modern trend towards unreflective and unremitting action. Telling is a technique that seems to work just fine and I don’t see why writers should be deprived of any technique whatsoever. One of the reasons I like writers who use the technique is that it can allow them to intrude themselves into to narrative, and I really like to know what the writer’s thoughts are on the story they are telling.

  7. Lauren says:

    We’re studying this in my Creative Writing course right now. I never realzied that sometimes when I write and I’m not thinking about it, I tend to tell versus show. My class just turned in a personal essay for an assignment and as I wrote the beginning paragraph I remember thinking, "Okay, how can I show what’s going on versus just telling the reader about it?" Then, I got carried away around the end and did a bunch of telling with no thought to the writing and my professor caught it. I know, now, that when I write it shouldn’t be this easy string of words that comes off the top of my head. I really need to think about what I’m doing in order to deliver my best.

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