I write stuff for kids...and muse on writing, children's books, and the publishing industry in general

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When showing interferes with your story (I know, right!)

For the last few weeks I’ve been struggling with my manuscript revisions. And I don’t just mean “struggling,” I mean capital S-t-r-um-uggling!!! I have the structure of this Part down, and I’ve got everything happening when and where it’s supposed to be happening. But as one of my fantastic critique partners pointed out, I’m still lacking a certain something. And are they going to let that slide. Not on your life! Hugs.

After various conversations, we finally narrowed it down to the dreaded “Show not Tell”. What can I say? Everyone knows the rule. Don’t tell what’s happening in the story, show it instead. Paint a picture in the reader’s mind so they can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch the characters and the story.

But that’s where I’ve been going wrong.


Our recent conversation went something like this (edited a little for dramatic effect of course):

Me: “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. Everyone says I should show not tell. And I’m doing that. Look, I’ve got Verity doing this, this, this, and this, and the readers can interpret her emotions from her actions. And I’ve got her thinking this and this, so we know what’s going on in her mind as well.”

Most-patient critique partner: “But you’re still not showing enough. Show us more, delve into her psyche.”

Distraught me: “I’ve done that.” Plaintive wail. “Look, here’s an example paragraph. See. Here, here, here and here. Showing. No backstory, no exposition, no flashbacks, no telling. I’ve followed all the rules. So how am I supposed to show anymore?”

Most-wise critique partner: “Hmm.” Picture an evil glint in her eye and fingers being drummed on the desk while she plots and plans. No, I made that bit up. Honest! “Here, I’ll have a go at rewriting your paragraph for you. I’ll show you.” (She didn’t really say that last bit, but I’m chortling as I add it in – poetic license and all that).

Nervous me: “Go ahead,” I say. And I bite my nails until the reply comes back, beautifully formatted in concise little paragraphs and lots of...wait...is there telling in there? And some backstory? And a hint of a tiny flashback? What’s going on? My world is ending. I can’t cope. The rules. THE RULES. WHAT ABOUT THE RULES???

Laughing critique partner: “Ah, those rules,” she says. “Well, they’re more like guidelines really.” I pictured a snigger at that stage, and maybe a little rubbing of the hands. “And you are following the rules, but it reads more like a shopping list. She went there, and she did this, and she bought a trolley-full of canned tuna. And she clenched her fists and gritted her teeth, and the reader therefore knows she’s really angry at something.”

Crushed me: I slink down lower in my chair and I ask in a teensy voice. “You mean, it’s ok to tell sometimes? And add in backstory?”

Most understanding critique partner: “Sometimes,” she says. “It needs to be functional. What you’re doing is following all the rules very carefully (ooh look, adverb!), and being too obvious in doing so. So lighten up a little (I added that bit), let the story flow, and don’t be afraid to add in a little bit of telling or backstory here or there if the story needs it."

Lightbulb-moment me: “Aaaaaaaahhhh.”


And there you have it. Maybe now I can write a little more soul into my manuscript...

How about you. Do you ever have any trouble with “Show not Tell?” Do you follow all the rules a little too carefully (oops, adverb!)? What are your best tips on practical ways to apply the writing “rules” and/or "Show not Tell?"


Bluestocking said...

Ugg. I too struggle with the show not tell mantra. It drives me crazy. Glad you had an a-ha moment. Hope you MS benefits!

Anonymous said...

I am having a nightmare with show not tell... and that same patient most-wise crit partner is helping me along.
I think we should get her to start a school and maybe we need to start a support group for each other. :D

Marieke said...

I'm a bit disturbed about the support group idea right after the school idea. Do you expect to be that traumatized? 0_o


Elisabeth said...

It's a rule that comes from film making, where scenes are important, but telling is fundamental to good storytelling, too.

You might find the Australian writer Antoni Jach's view Antoni Jach's view about writing that tells as opposed to writing that shows, useful.

He argues you can find your writing voice through two narrative modes:
The mimetic and the diegetic, which roughly translate into showing and telling.

The mimetic, imitative method is about creating images, therefore showing. Lately the mimetic showing style has become idealised. It should not. It is of value as is its counterpart, the diegetic. It is in fact only a different way of telling.
The mimetic discrete invisible narrator is a hall mark of the realist tradition, whereas the diegetic, present omnipresent narrator is a hall mark of the modernist, post modernist traditions. In the diegetic the reader is constantly reminded of the narrator, eg W G Sebald, it is narrator-based.

The narrator, even when author and narrator are felt to be as one exists and needs to be handled with care
Diegetic fiction is an alternative and legitimate form to mimetic fiction.
So don't think you need only show, as your writing partners suggest, sometimes you need to tell. Good luck with the re-write.

Marieke said...

I couldn't agree more that both have a place (and I'm interested in the topic, so I can't resist replying again). Neither of them are ideal, but together they may well be.

Still, showing and telling is not something that comes specifically from the movie business. I think it's probably most obvious in films, but it's one of those ancient discussions that can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle.

And if you look at their arguments it's interesting to find - although neither places one above the other, mimesis (showing) is representative of the now rather than a narrative of the past, as with diegesis (telling). From that point of view, I think it's clear both have a role in writing, because they both have different functions.

The role of the narrator is another interesting topic - especially in post-modern tradition - but enough fuel for days of discussions ;-)

Jess said...

I loved this post! It can be so frustrating to A) keep track of all the rules we're supposed to be following, and B) figure out when/if it's okay to break them. It's nice to see that other people struggle with this too--not that it's nice to see you struggle!! I just mean...well, you know what I mean :)

L.A. Colvin said...

My entire first draft is peppered with telling and not showing. My problem is I rush through the scenes too fast. I think that is one of the hardest things to do. I try to close my eyes and picture what I see in the scene. I've also been taught not to write the ordinary. We all know what a door looks like. But what if my nose smarts from the fresh varnish on the door? Then as a reader I know the door is probably still wet and smelly and maybe not even on teh hinges. Ok that made sense in my head. *sigh* A teacher and explainer I am not. ;)

Devin Bond said...

I've gone through a lot to get to the stage where I can do both fluently. (Though I still have problems!) I'm so used to seeing backstory and little hints of telling that it IS part of showing to me.

But when I see blatant telling... Oh boy!

Loribeth said...

I used to fight with various people who critiqued my work all the time (not my critique partner, because she agreed with me). I was always being told to "Show, not Tell." Well, ummmm...sorry, that gets boring when that's all you do. You have to have a little of both, a balance of sorts.

The same thing is true with adverbs and adjectives. There were people who wanted me to take out all the "ly" words... Well, I went to my favorite author and she had "ly" words all over the place. Of course, then I was told "well, she's published, she can break the rules."

Bah! You can follow the rules if you want to sounds like every other new, unpublished author out there, or you can use your own voice and create something special. Sounding like every other inexperienced writer isn't going to get you published.

Congrats on finding a fantastic CP! They're worth their weight in gold!

Liz P said...

Great post Rachael. I really struggle with Show Not Tell. As I'm doing revisions, I can't believe how many was's I'm finding. Gah!

It's hard to find that balance, and I think it's only something we learn through time and practice.

Theresa Milstein said...

Ha! I had the same moment in my last manuscript as well. We beat out the tell.. sometimes to death! Gotta tell a little.

Grandpa said...

Hi Rach, may I suggest that at the light bulb moment you grab yourself a big mug of herbal tea to cool you down?... :)) hugs

Kari Marie said...

I am struggling with this too. In design school I had a similar experience. They spent semesters reaching us the rules and then challenging us to break them. One of my instructors told me that the really good designers knew when to break the rules. I spent the next couple semesters doing whatever I wanted, experimenting with my weekly design assignments until they felt right. Maybe it's the same with writing.

erica and christy said...

This weekend I watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off and at the beginning when Matthew Broderick is talking right to the camera, I thought "Show, don't tell."

That's when I officially knew I'd gone crazy. ;)

Julie Musil said...

Yes, yes, yes! And when to do which? And what to cut and what to keep. Ahhhhhh! Your critique partner is a keeper.

Michael Di Gesu said...


To me it's all about balance. Too much of something is never good. To me a nice balance would be 40 percent showing, 30 percent, telling, 30 percent dialogue. This seems a balance that would really make a story work. Of course, I could be wrong, but do a balance that's comfortable to you. I agree that all showing is tiresome and at times boring. A lovely bit of telling prose breaks up the action.

As I said before too much of anything is never a good thing,,, except maybe contracts and money ,..lol


Anonymous said...

Great post Rach! Glad you've got through it smiling.

Alison Pearce Stevens said...

I struggle with it too... how to get the backstory in without just doing an info dump. But if it's important to the story, it's gotta be there. Yay for lightbulb moments! (Do you think people will continue to use that phrase if we switch over to fluorescent-only lighting? They don't come on quite so brilliantly... at least not at first.)

Su said...

Hey, you may as well get those adverbs out in a blog post so they don't sneak into your MS! :)

I've had the same problem-- too much of one or the other, when I'd just love some balance in my life.

Hart Johnson said...

It's such a hard line, isn't it? I think for me, it is the set up you TELL then show the scene. If the primary point of a three page scene can be 'told' in a paragraph... probably just do it that way... "they argues about who would pick up Jimmy from school" is absolutely adequate unless arguing includes some threat of violence or reopening of old wounds... something CRITICAL to the story.

And I say all this KNOWING how it theoretically should work, but knowing it is also a lot harder in our own stuff...

Julie Hedlund said...

Such a fine line - it's a wonder we writers aren't all crazy. Er... wait a minute...

Nicole Zoltack said...

Sometimes, it's ok to tell. All show and the readers have no time to catch their breath. It's when the writer falls into the trap of telling too much that it becomes a problem. But, yeah, it's possible to show too much too. Isn't being a writer easy? *said with much sarcasm*

Anonymous said...

oh thank you thank you thank you!
I don't have a willing crit partner to help me out... so I'm paying an editor... and seriously... I'm sure I'm showing .. but she tells me I'm telling... hmmm
growing... stretching... ouch!
I like to break rules :)

Anonymous said...

I too struggle with 'show and not tell'. All the time!

Great post, Rachael. Delighted to know I'm not alone :)

Regina said...

It's like the TV show House. Sometimes he just has to talk to Wilson for something to click or make sense in what problem he is trying to solve. I struggle with it too.

Rachael Harrie said...

Hey guys, thanks for your comments. It's interesting that this is something so many of us are struggling with (and great that some of you have also had your "aha" moment). May we all find the right balance between showing and telling soon :) And may chocolates rain upon our wonderful critique partners :)



Kiki Hamilton said...

It seems like it should get easier the more you practice but sometimes the telling slips in when you're not looking. I have a problem with my characters nodding and gazing ALL THE TIME. What is up with that?? I love me my delete key sometimes. ;-)

Adina West said...

This is such a hard one, and I think part of the issue can be deciding WHAT to show in scenes. If the character isn't doing anything interesting, and it's still taking two or three pages to 'show' what they're doing, then CUT! (as film directors are so fond of saying in an entirely different context)

As 'show' scenes are almost always more lengthy than narrative 'telling' would be it's essential to make sure that every scene you choose to show has several important functions, things you're imparting to the reader. And yes, that will very often mean a little bit of backstory being imparted, or foreshadowing of important events to come, among other things. Without those other elements the scene will feel flat and be without context in the broader structure.

As for adverbs, bring 'em on. It seems to me the so-called prohibition against them is entirely genre-based, so if writing a spy thriller maybe cut back on the adverbs. If writing a romance, go for it! Like anything, adverbs can be overdone, used badly etc. And that's something only experience and intuition can teach, rather than adherence to rules...

It'd be lovely if we could all follow the 'rules' and end up with a perfect novel though. ;-) Sigh

Anonymous said...

LOL! What a battle it sounds. I've noticed that alot of sci fi books and men's literatire is heavy on the telling and that action pieces must be told for their fast pace and dramatic effect, so yes I guess both are important. Great post.

aisyahputrisetiawan said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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