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Showing vs. Telling in Your Writing

Show, don’t tell. Most writers have heard this maxim at some point, whether from a teacher, an editor or an agent. But what does this writing advice mean, in practical terms?

While a certain amount of exposition is unavoidable (and even useful) in your writing, it’s easy to “over-share” the minutiae of your story’s background and your characters’ lives. When writing a novel, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve a balance of showing and telling:

  • Be brief. Make sure that all of your “telling” details are actually necessary to advance the plot, either by developing backstory, establishing the mood/tone, or describing the setting.
  • Avoid the dreaded “info dump.” Don’t overwhelm your reader with information in your story’s first few pages. Focus on capturing her attention with a compelling character and an interesting situation, then fold in the details as the plot develops.
  • Steer clear of cliches. Never start a story with a character waking up and starting his day—unless you want to put your reader to sleep.

Author and editor Jeff Gerke offers the following writing advice for balancing showing and telling from his book The First 50 Pages (Writer’s Digest Books):

 Showing vs. Telling in Your Writing: The Camera Test

I’ll give you a little tool here that could revolutionize your understanding of showing and telling in fiction. I may not be the first person to talk about it in these terms, but I know I’ve never heard it before I thought it up. So at least I’m its co-inventor.

Maybe you want to rid your fiction of telling but you simply can’t see it—not in other people’s fiction and certainly not in your own. So how can you delete something you can’t even see? There’s a question you can ask of any passage you feel may be telling. You ready? Get the passage in front of you and ask this of it: Can the camera see it?

There are exceptions, but Can the camera see it? is a terrific tool for helping you begin to see the telling in a manuscript. Let’s test it:

Urlandia was a peaceful realm. Peasants and nobles alike lived in harmony despite the occasional bout with famine or invaders from the neighboring kingdom of Dum. There were heroes and cads, pirates and tavern wenches, and in all, their lives were good.

Okay, aside from this being deadly dull, is it showing or telling? Let’s load up the testing gun and fire: Can the camera see it?

Your mind might have conjured up an image of a fantasy countryside with green meadows, vast forests, and castles with pennants flapping in the breeze, but how could you have seen “the occasional bouts with famine”? How could you see that their lives were good? You couldn’t. You weren’t shown any of this—you were simply told. And it probably left you feeling a little sleepy.

It would be quite possible to convert this telling to showing by depicting things before the camera’s lens that suggest each of these elements. But right now it’s unconverted telling. I can’t tell you how many unpublished novels I’ve seen that start like this. And I’ve rejected every single one of them. You don’t want your book rejected, so don’t put telling anywhere in the first fifty pages.

One more:

Veronica shifted into park and got out of her VW bug. She shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun and stared at the house. It was smaller than she remembered. And had it always been this run-down, or had it fallen into disrepair only lately? It had once been white, but the siding slats desperately needed a new paint job.

Two giant antennae poked up from the roof like alien tentacles. They were held in place by cables, but the one on the right nevertheless tilted at a diagonal. Maybe it helped with reception. The porch was covered by an awning of flaking wood. Whether the walls beneath the wood were worse off than the rest or they just looked that way because they were shrouded in shadow, Veronica couldn’t tell.

She sighed. If this is where she came from, no wonder she’d turned out as she had.

Okay, load up the testing gun. Can the camera see this? Actually, yes. Aside from a violation of the rule not to start a novel with someone getting out of a car, it’s not terrible prose. It’s description. Some people would be inclined to cut it because nothing seems to be happening: It’s neither action nor dialogue, so it must be telling. But that would be a mistake, since a lack of description can get your book declined. Description isn’t telling because … the camera can see it. Without description, the reader can’t visualize the story—which means that your story can’t go forward without description. Don’t leave it out.

As I mentioned, there are exceptions. The camera can’t see sounds or smells or temperatures or tastes, though a description of those things would not be telling. Also, interior monologue—the viewpoint character’s thoughts and interpretations—can’t be seen by a camera and is therefore not (usually) telling. But on the whole, Can the camera see it? will help you immediately spot and eliminate telling.

Buy The First 50 Pages by Jeff Gerke.

For more help with writing a novel, check out these resources from Writer's Digest:

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