Recently I was in a critique group where we all read our work. I liked the story of one author who read and told her if I started her book, I’d keep reading. But I also told her that the work would be stronger if she didn’t combine showing with telling. She had trouble understanding what I meant so I had to explain.
So let me define what I mean by telling, then what I mean by showing, then what it looks like when both are combined.
Let’s say I have a character who is angry. If I’m telling, I might write something like this:
John angrily told everyone he was done.
A stronger version might use dialog, like this:
“I’m done,” John said angrily.
But notice either way, I just told you John was angry. You can’t tell from what he said that he was angry. Given the context, you might be able to figure it out, but the phrase, “I’m done,” could mean anything from ‘I finished the dishes’ to ‘I am ending a relationship.’
Now, let me “show” using this same statement and character.
John slammed his hand on the table. “I’m done with you.”
Do I need to tell you John is angry? Do I need to tell you John is ending a relationship? Nope. You got it both from my description of the action and from what he said.
Now, let me combine showing and telling.
John slammed his hand on the table. “I’m done with you,” he said angrily.
So now that you’ve seen the three examples, can you see showing is stronger than telling? And can you see that showing alone is the strongest version? There’s an added benefit of making the story move faster, which is the experience you want your reader to have.
I hope this doesn’t seem too obvious, but I see writers do it all the time. When I see it, I assume the writer didn’t trust the reader to follow, so they add telling to be sure the reader is tracking with them - especially if it’s important to the writer that the reader get the emotion involved.
It’s much better to assume the reader is smart and that they get the nuances. It makes for a pleasant experience for the reader. It makes the work stronger and more compelling. And that, in turn, makes you a better writer.
About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website: www.LindaRohrbough.com.