Updated: Oct 9, 2022
If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, especially if you’ve braved the merciless arena of writer support groups, you’ve likely heard the battle cry: “You need to do more showing and less telling,” accompanied by corporate-style head nods from the rest of the group. To be completely honest, I’ve experienced some rather visceral reactions upon hearing this advice, regardless of whether it was aimed at me. Thoughts like “What do these people know?” and “Who appointed David leader of this group anyway?” or possibly “Did I really reschedule my dentist appointment for this?”
Now I don’t mean to negate the concept entirely, nor to throw shade on Dave and his group. It takes hard work, coordination, and courage to organize such a group, whether online or in real life, and there is a literal TON of good that can come of them. Not to mention the baring-your-soul experience of handing out copies of your WIP to semi-strangers for unchecked feedback, which carries with it some quick and hard lessons for any who dare.
I do have one point to make here at the outset: They’re called books, aren’t they? Comprised entirely of words? So…unless you’re into graphic novels, at the core of it, you’re telling the reader literally everything, aren’t you? Or is there some deeper meaning to this idiom? Is the phrase “show more, tell less,” really the ‘telling’ version of a far more valuable truth?
Going back to David and his friends, I usually try to improve the situation by sidestepping my internal dialogue and asking (using out loud, Earth words), “Okay. How?”
[Insert WAV file of crickets chirping here.]
What makes good ‘showing’, when all your tools consist of verbs, nouns, adjectives and (plug your ears Stephen King) adverbs, strung together into sentences and paragraphs? And how do you know good ‘showing’ when you see it? Turns out, it’s a lot harder to intelligently articulate the concept than it is to casually toss on the table like a whistle to unleash the critiquing feeding frenzy.
There’s an abundance of advice out in the literary world on this topic, though. One often suggested cure for too much telling is the use of dialogue. A conversation between characters can easily introduce descriptions and hints of surrounding scenery and events in a very organic manner. It feels natural, like you as the reader are experiencing things through the eyes of the characters, rather than having the author explain it all to you. Here’s an example from our own works (The Tome of Wyrms), which I suggest shows this technique used effectively:
“Did you see that?” Victor asked.
“How could I not?”
“What was it?”
“How should I know?” Shea countered.
“You’re an elf!” Victor posed. “Don’t all elves know magic?”
“Don’t all humans live in their own filth?”
“That’s,” Victor cocked his head, “that’s what elves say about us?”
Shea shrugged. “Some do. And no, all elves do not use magic. I do not either.”
Because the text is pulled out of its surrounding context, you know nothing about the characters or their circumstance. Hopefully, though, you get some clear impressions. First, these two don’t know each other all that well. Second, that one is a human and one is an elf, with quite a lot of generalized prejudgment about the other’s culture and values. Third, it’s apparent they’re teamed up for some purpose. But the interesting thing to note here is none of those three things were explicitly said in the text. We were able to see it by the nature of their conversation. It was shown through the dialogue, rather than being told to the reader.
Another way to show involves some telling, but with the approach that what is shown is implied by what is being told, not directly stated. Let’s consider a verse from a classic work, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick:
“Seated on the transom was what seemed to me a most uncommon and surprising figure. It turned out to be Captain Bildad, who along with Captain Peleg was one of the largest owners of the vessel; the other shares, as is sometimes the case in these ports, being held by a crowd of old annuitant; widows, fatherless children, and chancery wards; each owning about the value of a timber head, or a foot of plank, or a nail or two in the ship. People in Nantucket invest their money in whaling vessels, the same way that you do yours in approved state stocks bringing in good interest.”
At first glance, this sure looks like a lot of telling. The author is literally telling us what to imagine; describing the culture and economy of Nantucket. Within this paragraph, the seeming subjects of the narrative—Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg—have yet to be directly described. But we do come away with a powerful impression of what they should look like by being called to envision the place being described. Pretty neat trick. Melville could have launched into a lengthy dissertation about their manner of dress, their beards, the types of pipes they were smoking, their manner of speech, and so on to accomplish the same purpose. But would this have been showing as much as telling? Perhaps. So maybe it’s being direct about the telling that makes it, in fact, telling, and his rather oblique approach allows it to be more demonstrative.
Let’s try another one, this time from deeper into the same novel:
“At sunrise he summoned all hands; and separating those who had rebelled from those who had taken no part in the mutiny, he told the former that he had a good mind to flog them all round—thought, upon the whole, he would do so—he ought to—justice demanded it; but for the present, considering their timely surrender, he would let them go with a reprimand, which he accordingly administrated in the vernacular.”
More telling, right? After all, he’s not really laying out a scene, he’s merely recounting what happened, just the bare-bones account of the event. I could easily imagine this being expanded into a vivid scene, covering several pages, including lengthy descriptions of the captain or bosun tromping about the ship, hauling miscreants this way and that, barking orders, perhaps even dealing with a little scuffle with some particularly defiant seaman. And I would certainly relish digesting verse after verse of colorfully articulate dressings down of the men involved, with colloquial insults enough to make the men smirk and the women blush. But where does that leave us? Has Melville resorted to telling here, when there could have been so much more to be shown? Did he shortchange us? Read on.
“’But as for you, ye carrion rogues,’ turning to the three men in the rigging—‘for you I mean to mince ye up for the try-pots;’ and, seizing a rope, he applied it with all his might to the backs of the two traitors, till they yelled no more, but lifelessly hung their heads sideways, as the two crucified thieves are drawn.”
Genius. Melville was simply setting the stage for what became a brilliant and evocative exposition of two men being rope-flogged that has my imagination brimming with images. And his economy of words defies understanding. Read it again: it’s a single sentence. Not a lengthy litany of each and every blow, peppered with rent flesh, wails of despair, and weeping wounds. But we still come away feeling not the least bit underserved. I smelled the rope, the salt, the wood. I heard the screams, the sound rope would make being hauled through the air. I envisioned the rest of the men standing silent and somber, watching this punishment being handed down. And I had no trouble at all conjuring up the image of the thieves to either side of Christ Jesus, hanging on their crosses at the final word. Did Melville show us this scene? With brutal, cold efficiency.
We’ve seen how dialogue can show without telling. We’ve also seen how a little telling can effectively set the stage for showing. Another method I personally appreciate is a version of dialogue where we get to see into a particular character’s mind; internal dialogue. In a more contemporary work, a favorite in my chosen genre of epic fantasy, I find a compelling example we can learn from. Let me share with you a couple of introductory paragraphs from The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie:
“Why do I do this? Inquisitor Glockta asked himself for the thousandth time as he limped down the corridor. The walls were rendered and whitewashed, though none too recently. There was a seedy feel to the place and a smell of damp. There were no windows, as the hallway was deep beneath the ground, and the lanterns cast slow flowing shadows into every corner.
“Why would anyone want to do this? Glockta’s walking made a steady rhythm on the grimy tiles of the floor. First the confident click of his right heel, then the tap of his cane, then the endless sliding of his left food, with the familiar stabbing pains in the ankle, knee, arse and back. Click, tap, pain. That was the rhythm of his walking.”
First, the dialogue. Posing a rhetorical question of oneself is a powerful tool. In the book, this is the first glimpse we get of Inquisitor Glockta, and within two paragraphs we’re already asking ourselves questions, too! Why does he do what, exactly? Why is he in this place? Thousands of times? If he doesn’t want to do this thing, why is he then? How did he become so crippled? The mere revelation of the beginnings of his internal dialogue (which, by the way, deliciously colors the novel in every scene Glockta shows up in), causes us one of our own and forces us to pose answers to them. It’s a beautiful irony that we are then compelled to keep reading if only to discover whether the assumptions we make now turn out to be true or not? But by then, there will be a dozen more questions, a dozen more hooks, and we’re junkies looking for the next fix.
Unlike Melville, I feel Abercrombie tends toward directly describing things. Having read near ten of his books now, I can authoritatively say this is his style. In the text above, the walls were rendered and whitewashed, there were no windows, and the hallway was deep beneath the ground; all of these things are rather straightforward. He’s telling us how it is. But it doesn’t seem awkward or dry, either. All of it adds color, or rather takes away from it and tells us how dreadfully colorless and dreary the place is. I liken this type of description to salt in a pot of stew; it doesn’t create the flavor, it awakens your taste buds to realize there is a swirling vortex of flavors needing to be appreciated. Abercrombie sprinkles these tidbits in here and there, and as readers we accept them as truth, and we fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. Is this the ‘telling’ all those sages in the literary groups were warning us of? No. It is obviously not.
Here’s the final point. Writing, especially the sort of writing aimed at being entertaining, is a work of art. It is meant to resonate with each reader’s unique perspective, experiences, biases and opinions. Whether you feel Abercrombie, or Melville, or Tolkien told you something or showed you, whether you feel they described something too much or too little, left too much to the imagination or no room at all for it, all these really come down to that relationship. Did you find yourself in that enviable place where the words on the page disappeared and you saw your own version of the story being told? Or was it a plodding, churning grind of words, each page more drudgery than the last? That’s the test, my friends.
So how, as authors, do we accomplish the same? Again, it really comes down to that unique blend of author and reader, no two combinations of which will achieve the same result. And it points back to a deeper meaning of the colloquial advice of show versus tell. There are times when telling is the path to showing. There are times when as an author you are simply telling, and that’s okay. And there are times when you’re obviously showing…just…with words. There really is a lot of grey here, with very little true black and white.
As I’ve tried to show, there are masters of the trade, from whom we can learn and be inspired. Likewise, there are countless others responsible for sucking the life energy from us with words of cardboard. In the end, each reader will judge for themselves. And we, the would-be authors, will keep trying, keep striving, and keep throwing our works into the gladiator pits of author groups and beta readers, hoping to see that light in their eyes that says we’ve done it.
My best piece of advice I’ve saved for last. Read often and take careful note of passages where that window opens and for a moment you forget you’re looking at words. Stop yourselves at that moment (or afterward, that’s cool), and try to figure out how the author did that for you. It’s the magic of those moments in reading that we’re trying to replicate. And once you figure it out, come back here and share it with us! Leave here in the comments or visit us on any of our social media sites below. We’d love to learn from you, too!
As always, thank you for reading!
Jason and Rose - Legends of Cyrradon
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