If you’ve written for any amount of time or had any writing friends, you’ve probably heard this rule of thumb. But sometimes, I feel like this advice doesn’t encompass everything when it comes to writing.
It’s usually best to show rather than tell your audience what you want them to take away from a scene. For example, it’s far more immersive to describe your character’s trembling hands than to simply say, “He’s scared.”
This is showing, and it’s typically considered a sign of good writing. But there are other areas that might need a little telling, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Usually, writers steer clear of the dreaded exposition dump. Especially in fantasy, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of explaining every little bit of your story world in one long-winded passage.
This is a form of telling that’s not just frowned upon: it’s called out and corrected as soon as possible because it bores the reader to tears. It also calls attention to the fact that you’re reading a story. In short, it breaks the immersion.
But I have an unpopular opinion on telling! When paired with showing, telling can act as an interesting partner.
I get a lot of feedback from critique partners that call for showing rather than telling, and I absolutely understand that. But sometimes scenes call for telling, to get across bits of important information threaded with showing.
If a scene is all showing and no telling, things can get confusing real fast.
TOO MUCH TELLING:
He loved her because she was beautiful to him. Nothing could change his perception of her, not even when her duties as the princess of Kingdomsville made her distant and cold.
In this instance, we don’t get to see the princess through the POV character’s eyes. All we know is that he loves her … or, at least, that’s what we’re told. We know what we’re being told, but we don’t know much about what the characters are feeling in the moment or what anything looks like in the scene.
TOO MUCH SHOWING:
Her purple silken gown flowed down to the hardwood floor, splaying in all directions like a river of fabric as she sipped from her flowered teacup. Her eyes glazed over him, cold and glossy. They made his heart stutter in his chest, his tongue a lump in his throat.
This time, we have a close look at the scene and a good view of the relationship between the POV character and the princess. But we don’t know what the greater context is.
SHOWING AND TELLING:
He could watch her sip tea all day. (telling) Her purple silken gown flowed to the hardwood floor, splaying in all directions, a river of fabric. (showing) Much like the River separating Kingdomsville from its allies, it flowed between them as it had since she first took up her duties of princess. (telling) Her eyes glazed over him, cold and glossy. (showing) He still wasn’t used to it, (telling) the stutter in his chest. They used to be so close…
With a healthy mixture of showing and telling, you can get the most of the scene.
These are my musings on the topic of showing versus telling. I tend not to use just showing or just telling, as I like to expand my writing practice by using every tool I can get my hands on.
Try it for yourself, and see how it goes! Happy writing!
Rachel Sandell is a writer and editor from Washington State, where rainy days necessitate long books, hot chocolate, and plenty of magic. Though she specializes in speculative fiction and harbors a love for the dark and enchanting, she also dabbles in poetry and is the archive project coordinator for Fireweed: Poetry of Oregon. She is an MFA graduate from the Rainier Writing Workshop, and her short stories have appeared in SORTES magazine, Night Picnic Press, and Leading Edge magazine.
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