This is the first draft of an article I'm hoping to submit to the Writing Tutorials forum on YWS. All criticism is welcome, but I particularly want to know whether you think the structure works, if the explanations are clear, and if the article itself is helpful. I'd also love people to point out if anything can be cut out or shortened, because I do sometimes ramble a bit, and if the examples themselves are effective. Something tells me I might have overused my commas in the 'Good Telling' sample, so guidance as to how to get that example as well-written as possible would be very much appreciated.
If you’ve been posting on YWS for some time, odds are you’ll have seen the words ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than you can count. It’s the oldest piece of writing advice in the book, and while it is incredibly important, it is often simplified. ‘Show, don’t tell’ suggests that showing is good and telling is bad, but both are necessary when telling a story.
For anyone who hasn’t come across this piece of writing advice, the distinction is as follows:
Telling – Stating information explicitly for the reader. Some writers refer to it as ‘informing’ (e.g. ‘he was angry’).
Showing – Implying information in such a way that the reader has to infer the meaning for themselves (e.g. ‘he clenched his fists’).
Most of the time when people say ‘show, don’t tell’, what they really mean is ‘don’t tell in this context’. Every story contains a balance of showing and telling, and the trick to good writing is figuring out when each technique is appropriate.
Showing is usually suitable when:
Telling is usually suitable when:
So, having assured the importance of telling, another question springs to mind. How do you tell well? Believe it or not, telling requires as much delicacy as showing – it isn’t just a matter of unloading information on the reader. Let’s look at some examples of bad and good telling.
It was snowy in December. I tried to build two snowgirls in the garden, but it was too cold, so I only managed to construct one. Seeing it standing by itself reminded me of my own situation, which upset me, so I destroyed it.
A few weeks passed but the police still didn’t make contact. At Christmas, my mother drank too much wine and acted distraught all day, then went to bed early. When I went up soon after, I slept in Haylee’s bed, but she had been gone so long that it seemed like it had never belonged to her.
When December came, frost crept over the branches of the oak tree, and within days white blanketed the entire garden. I tried to build two snowgirls in the middle of the lawn, but the cold bit right through my gloves and I could only finish one. She looked lonely by herself. I kicked her over.
The weeks melted with the ice, but we still didn’t hear anything. On Christmas Day, Mum chugged a whole bottle of wine and pushed her dinner away, then went to bed even before Strictly came on. When I went up after her, my feet turned left instead of right, carrying me to Haylee’s room. Inside, the moonlight made sparks of the dust motes. When I slid into her bed, I couldn’t smell her on the pillows at all.
These are both examples of telling because the narrative has a significant distance to it, but the second improves on the first in a number of ways. Let’s break it down.
I have exaggerated the differences between the two examples so as to make them easier to compare, so in the interests of keeping it relatable to real writing, let’s briefly look at an example of telling from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father’s house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across from each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts. We took turns with the mirror as we ate mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing.
As with the second example, the passage is specific; Hosseini does not only say that the two boys annoyed the neighbours, but specifies that they did it by reflecting sunlight into their houses with a mirror. Hosseini also symbolises information through events and actions – he never states that the boys were friends or that the memory being recalled is a happy one, but represents it in the playful way they pelted mulberries at one another and the mentions of giggling and laughter. The third point is hard to gauge from a single passage, but having read the book I can testify that the narration is consistent with the rest of the prose – it does not break from the main character’s typical style.
So, with all of that analysis in mind, here are my guidelines for good telling:
Unlike with showing, where you can reach for useful guidelines like ‘delete unnecessary adverbs’ and ‘use dialogue’, there aren’t many obvious rules for telling. A lot of it comes from intuition and experimentation. To anyone who wants a bit more information about showing and telling, as well as telling from a third person perspective, I’d suggest you check out this excellent article, which is what inspired me to make this thread in the first place.
If there’s anything else you’d like me to discuss in this article, please let me know!