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How Do You Tackle Showing Vs. Telling In Your Writing?

March 26, 2010

Kiki Hamilton, a talented new author of Young Adult (YA) urban fantasy, is our guest blogger this week. Her magical first novel, The Faerie Ring, is forthcoming from TOR Books in spring 2011. You can read more about Kiki and her work at her personal blog and her group blog with other YA and middle grade fantasy authors at The Enchanted Inkpot.

We’ve asked Kiki to discuss what for many writers is easier said than done—showing versus telling. Kiki writes in a variety of genres for YA, including paranormal and epic fantasies. All of her novels are steeped in mystery, magic, and adventure against atmospheric backdrops such as 1871 London.

Thanks for inviting me to blog with you, Supriya!

We’ve all heard it a hundred times: Show, don’t tell. But sometimes it’s not as easy as it sounds. Show, don’t tell, can be a nebulous concept to an author just starting out and even for more experienced authors.

Here’s a simple example of the difference:

Tell: Katie walked toward the classroom. She was one of the smartest girls in school.

Show: Katie collected her books. Latin. Trigonometry. Physics. And those were just for her morning classes.

Can you see the difference? We saw the subjects that Katie was studying and that revealed much more information than to just tell us she was smart.

Here’s another one – let’s see if you can decide which shows and which tells:

Peter was so angry he broke the mug.

With a roar, Peter grabbed the mug and slammed it down on the table so hard it shattered into a million pieces.

I think it’s obvious which of those two sentences drops the reader right into the scene. And that’s the key to showing: Drop your reader right into the scene. Let us feel the emotions, the cry of rage, hear and feel the mug not only breaking, but shattering under our fingers.

A scene shows us action in real time. The events unfold as we read. What makes a scene real is to include all of our senses:

Do we smell the scent of fresh baked bread?

Do we feel the softness of the bunny’s fur?

Can we taste the bite of the jalapeno pepper?

Can we hear the whistle of the train as it approaches the station?

Can you see the sad eyes of the elephant in the zoo?

Scenes also include settings that the reader can picture, as well as dialogue. Sometimes a writer will “tell” the story by narrative summary, which can cause a reader to disengage and lose interest. Instead, “show” your story by pulling your readers into the scene. Make them use their senses and emotions to experience what’s happening. You won’t lose their interest that way.

However – there are places for narrative summary – to vary they rhythm and texture of your writing. But small doses can go a long way.

Often times, the words ‘had’ and ‘was’ are indicative of telling. Take a look at your manuscript and see how often those words appear. And when you find them, try and say the same thing in a different way using words that show the setting or the character.

What techniques do you use to make sure you’re showing rather than telling?

Thanks so much for blogging with us today, Kiki! Your insights on this topic make for a terrific refresher. We’ll be keeping an eye out for your new release. Much luck and best wishes with the release of The Faerie Ring and please keep us posted!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 26, 2010 8:34 am

    Excellent advice and one mistake I still struggle with. Good point about sometimes having one line of narrative trickle in as opposed to a whole data dump. I’ve found that works well in my work without pulling the reader out (or so I hope!).

    Looking forward to your release and I wish you much success! Thanks for joining us today, Kiki!

  2. March 26, 2010 10:36 am

    Some of the best advice I’ve seen on the show vs. tell lesson, Kiki.

    Thanks so much for dropping by to guest blog!

  3. March 26, 2010 12:22 pm

    great advice! Loved the post.

  4. March 26, 2010 4:27 pm

    Great discussion going on here.

    Looking at the page, the amount of white space, is a good indicator for me as to whether I’m dialogue heavy or narrative heavy. And then I can go back and double check the narrative for telling.

    Congrats, Kiki, on your book!! Can’t wait to read it!!

  5. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    March 26, 2010 9:28 pm

    Thanks for stoppping by Kiki and giving all us followers here some great advice! I struggle with this too. So often I forget the readers can’t see what I see! So I just rush through a scene with out thinking about the little things (like the smells or the feel). I make sure to have one of my read throughs during editing focus on JUST this aspect though, so hopefully the final copy doesn’t have too many issues! But, that’s where Beta readers help – to catch stuff like that!

  6. March 26, 2010 11:50 pm

    I think it depends upon what you’re going for in a scene, whether you show or tell. For example, if you want the reader to get the atmosphere, then you show it. But if you really want to be precise and drive your point home, you tell it. Compare:

    “Despite all the noise and ruckus, the horse stood stock-still, barely twitching his ears or blinking an eye.” to

    “Smoky was one calm horse, that’s for certain. Yessir, he was cool as a cucumber in a mountain stream.”

    The first one tells you that the horse was calm in a certain situation, but the second one gives you insight into Smoky’s personality, as well as how he’d react in past and future settings. So I think it just depends upon the style and voice, and what you want to convey.

    Great topic, and it’s great to see you on Wicked Writers, Kiki. Congrats on your upcoming release!

  7. Vicki permalink
    March 27, 2010 10:56 am

    Kiki

    Your comments about active vs. passive writing are so true. I catch myself adding a ‘had’ or ‘was’ in my rush to finish a scene. It’s amazing the difference when extra thought is added per your example. The writing is fresh, immediate and pulls the reader into the story.

    I can’t wait to read your books.

  8. March 27, 2010 11:36 am

    Thanks for your comments! It’s always a learning process and I’m definitely still learning!

    Paula – I love the idea of looking at white space to spot dialogue v. narrative summary. I’ll have to try that.

    Nicole – I loved your example. Distinctly different voices between those two sentences.

    Vicki – hi! I think you were the first person to tell me to watch ‘had’ and ‘was’! It took me forever to get through my thick head too!

    Supriya, C.J., W.J., and Greg – thanks for inviting me to guest blog. I love reading your posts here. Best of luck with your books, as well!

  9. March 27, 2010 7:59 pm

    Late to the party but this is always a topic worth revisiting.

    Sometimes writers confuse showing with the deletion of all narrative, all interior, all anything but action and dialogue. Not so. Sometimes you can use narrative to show a scene progressing or make a link to a thought or to a previous scene.

    And sometimes (I know this is not popular), just sometimes, you gotta learn to tell so well that nothing else could possibly work.

    • March 28, 2010 9:06 am

      Good point, Uma. The real challenge is in learning how to balance it all so that none of what you are doing is apparent.

  10. March 28, 2010 8:01 pm

    Hi Uma! (one of my fabulous teachers) Wow! What a great surprise to find you here! As always, your comments make us dig deeper into finding the right way to tell the story. Thanks for sharing your wisdom! *hugs*

  11. P.C. Windham permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:17 pm

    Very good tips. I have just had a manuscript rejected, however the editor gave me a detailed description of why it was. It all boiled down too that I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ POVs. She wishes me to revise it and resubmit. So thank you for this blog entry. I now understand what she was getting at and I can revise my manuscript accordingly.

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