Showing and Telling – Not As Simple As it Sounds

Showing and telling: not as simple as it sounds

One of the most used phrases in editing is the dreaded, “Show, don’t tell.” What it means, very simply, is that the prose is using direct words and phrases (He was very angry) versus description (His blood thumped in his ears and he clenched his fists). While the definition is pretty clear, the application of showing and telling is much more nuanced.

Note: While most of the examples in this blog post are made up, they are inspired by our freelance editing clients. 

Explaining Away the Plot

Showing and telling: When the reader is present for the action in the plot, it packs a larger punch narrativelyAs freelance editors, we encounter a lot of showing and telling, but usually more telling. For most of our clients, it boils down to a lack of awareness of your plot. And also, just a hint of writer laziness. The most clear example of showing vs. telling is when an author explains away an entire scene in a single sentence:

Later, Anita went to the council meeting. I followed along and they discussed the upcoming presidential election. I watched as a heated argument arose between Anita and Councilman Jeffords. After that, we had lunch and discussed it.

Our editing comment would be something along the lines of, “Turn this into a scene.” Unless the council meeting offered nothing of plot-or-character-value, this is a chance to continue building your world. When the reader is present for an action, it keeps them engaged.

Body Language

When it comes to dialogue, writers have to strike a balance between giving too much background and body language and keeping the conversation going. More often than not, we see a lot of dialogue and not a lot of descriptors, which can both confuse the reader as to who’s talking and not give us a clear picture of the emotion in the room.

“I didn’t say that,” he said.

“Yes, you did. You totally said that.”

“You are such a liar. I can’t believe you’d say something like that about me.”

“I can’t believe I ever loved you.”

The words, by themselves, are powerful. But with the addition of some body language–a pause here, a turning away there, an averted gaze and flushed cheeks, we can glean much more about this conversation. This is especially crucial when building relationships between characters in your text.

Duplication with Dialogue

Along the same lines as above, we see a lot of authors duplicate sentiments found within dialogue, or understood from subtext:

I was so angry. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“What?” he replied with a small shrug. He obviously wasn’t concerned about it. “There was nothing I could do.”

Yeah, right. “That’s such bullshit.”

In this case, you may be able to get away with one or two asides, but as a reader, you know that Person A is angry, and from the shrug and dialogue, you know Person B doesn’t care. Instead, you could

Purple Prose

Showing and telling: Learning when to use each is a crucial author skillWe’ve also dealt with some authors who go above and beyond on the showing standpoint, giving us an entire chapter of exposition on how cold the outside is. While there are some readers who enjoy that level of detail, there are others who see a block of text and flip to the next page. Here is the flip side of showing and telling – too much showing.

There’s also such a thing as purple prose, or prose that’s too elaborate or ornate. Usually, this prose involves some rather unique word choices describing action that isn’t very interesting:

The elfin woman shrugged her bony, pale shoulders, her silvery hair fluttering with each movement. Her golden eyes danced about the room, absorbing everything from the chandelier to the marble tile floors. With a flick of her ebony cape, she swept toward the aperture on the wall.

In some cases, purple prose works. Fantasy books with massive amounts of worldbuilding benefit from having more detail. If you’re an author with a flowery writing style, do what works for you and your preference. But keep in mind that too much detail can distract the reader.

How to Fix It

It really boils down to the uniqueness of your book. No two stories are exactly alike. In general, here are some rules to keep in mind for showing and telling:

  • Plot explanation: Ask yourself: Is this scene crucial? Would writing it give an additional view into this world or the plot?
  • Dialogue: What are the characters doing? If they’re sitting around, staring at the wall, dialogue-only may work. Look up some articles on body language and try to incorporate it.
  • Purple Prose: Is the paragraph too descriptive? Is there a reason for the detail, or is it just to fill space?

Reading through your manuscript to find the issues is really the best way to locate the problems. That’s why we’re such big believers in getting additional feedback, especially for newer writers learning the craft. After a few rounds with an editor, it becomes easier to understand where to utilize each practice.


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