Lesson 5 – Telling, not showing (Amateur Writing Mistakes)

Before I start, I want to add a disclaimer that I’m not selling myself as an expert here. My ‘Amateur Writing Mistakes’ series includes lessons I’ve learned the hard way through critiques of my writing, as well as from courses I’ve attended and books I’ve read. I hope that by sharing these with you, I can help you to dodge some of the amateur writing pitfalls so that nothing gets in the way of you sharing your story with your readers.

So, what is ‘telling’?

It seems to be the favourite writing mistake of every editor  – the old ‘showing vs telling’ dilemma.

So what is ‘telling’, and why is it so bad?

Telling is when the writer includes too much narration in a passage, not letting the details be revealed naturally through the text. It has the effect of dumbing down the text so the  readers feel spoken down to, rather than feeling as though they are part of the story.

An example would be stating:

Jenna had brown hair, brown eyes, and freckles.

This is factual and ‘tells’ the reader information rather than ‘showing’ it to them.

Instead, what about saying:

The light reflected off Jenna’s dark hair, revealing amber highlights, and creating a softness about her. As his eyes focused on her chestnut-brown gaze, he caught the slightest hint of freckles on the creamy skin of her perfect nose.

The second example is a lot more visual, and hopefully more interesting. It not only creates an atmosphere, but it helps to move the story along as the description not just an aside. You may also notice (particularly for NaNoWriMo writers) that this is a great way to increase the word count of your story, if this is something you struggle with.

One thing that bothers me when I’m reading a book is when the writer shares too much of the internal workings of a character, eg he felt like … he wondered if … she thought that etc. I think it works better to share what the character is feeling or thinking through dialogue with another character, or even internal dialogue with themselves. Thoughts and feelings can also be expressed through body language, eg punching a wall in anger rather than saying ‘he was angry’.

Of course, there are times when ‘telling’ is more appropriate. For instance, if a character is re-telling a story that has already been explained using the ‘showing’ method, it is enough to just say ‘and he told her what had happened earlier that day’ without elaborating.

What can you do about it?

The best tip I can give you is to read, read, read – pick some of the best authors around and see how they balance showing vs telling.

Print out your manuscript and grab a highlighter (for those like me who love stationery, this is a great purchasing opportunity!). Highlight passages where you can spend more time fleshing out the description instead of just telling the reader what is happening. Think creatively about how you can ‘show’ rather than tell, then make the changes to your document.

Useful links

E J Runyon has a great article on using the senses to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ and she also offers tutorials via Skype – http://ejrunyon.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/how-to-be-more-sense-ative/

Other useful sites include:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/showing-vs-telling-in-your-writing

http://www.mariavsnyder.com/advice/showvstell.php

What other tips have you found helpful to help you ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’?

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