Telling through showing

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In their fine book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King share their experiences editing other writers’ novels. Early in their book the authors take on an old chestnut: Show, don’t tell. But they do that bromide more justice by describing how it helps illuminate characters.

The telling, Browne and King explain, should be like seasoning in a recipe: used carefully, in small amounts to improve the taste of the main ingredient: showing.

There are going to be times when telling will create more engagement than showing. In an example from The Great Gatsby, the line “A thrill passed over all of us” inside a scene is clearly telling. And yet this line, coming so close on the rumor that Gatsby may have killed a man, gives a flavor of cheap gossip to the scene that heightens its effect.

Browne and King add that “Even within descriptions that have nothing to do with character emotion, there are ways you can show rather than tell.” Showing a character’s actions that would match up with the condition of a car or house permits lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Be generous with your readers. Give them a role to play in making the entertainment of your stories. Let them meet your writing halfway, a place to look at what you are showing them, so their observations bring your story into their imaginations.

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