31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep: Day 16 – When Do I Show, When Do I Tell, and What’s the Difference?

Hey there everybody! I hope you’re ready to learn all about showing vs. telling in today’s “31 Days of NaNoWriMo Prep” lesson! If you don’t feel ready, then that’s probably because you haven’t read any of the other posts in this series yet. Don’t worry, you can catch up here, or watch the corresponding YouTube videos here.

So let’s hop right into Day 16! I think the best place to start, as always, is with some definitions. We’ll start with showing. Showing is when you use the senses to establish imagery, action, character description, etc., while allowing the reader to deduce the specifics. It’s usually associated with scene. On the other hand, telling is when you simply come out and tell your reader things plainly, where they do not need to deduce anything. It’s usually associated with summary. I know that these definitions may not make things perfectly clear, so I’ve also come up with a few examples of each to help you visualize the differences a little better.

Example 1:

  • Telling
    • “The boy was much taller than her.”
  • Showing
    • “She craned her neck to look up into his eyes.”

Example 2:

  • Telling
    • “I was sad.”
  • Showing
    • “My heart sank, and tears filled my eyes as I watched her walk away.”

Example 3:

  • Telling
    • “It was early spring.”
  • Showing
    • “The snow was beginning to melt, giving way to dried brown grass that would soon be green, and Brian sucked in a deep breath of fresh, spring air.”

As you can see, showing is a lot more vivid. Its purpose is to invest the reader in the story by making them feel like they’re there, seeing and experiencing everything your main character is seeing and experiencing. Telling’s purpose is to concisely get an idea across without wasting too much time on unnecessary details.

It’s been widely debated amongst writers as to which is better. You’ve probably heard the saying “Show, don’t tell.” It might have even been the first writing lesson you ever received. The thing is, though, that this “rule” is a gross generalization that’ll lead to some god awful writing if you’re not careful. Allow me to explain.

Say you’re writing a scene, where there’s action and dialogue and you’re actually trying to build the plot and move it forward. In that scenario, it’s almost always best to show instead of tell. Don’t tell your reader that a character is angry, show them. Have that character’s face flush and their fists clench. There are times in a scene, though, where telling can be the way to go. For example, if your character is getting dressed and it has no pertinence to the actual story. Instead of showing the reader this action (and thus unnecessarily dragging out the moment) by saying something like “He yanked his khaki pants up, the fabric clinging to his still-damp skin, and buttoned them before hurrying out the mahogany door”, you could just say “He pulled his pants on and ran out the door.” Same concept comes across, but you aren’t boring and bogging down your reader with nonessential information.

Another instance where telling instead of showing in a scene would be a better choice is when you’re describing something pretty cliche or that could easily be inferred, like a sunset. Most–if not all–people know what a sunset looks like, so going into depth about the purples and pinks in the clouds and how the sky looks like it’s on fire is superfluous. All you would really need to say is “The sunset was beautiful.” Immediately, people will picture the sunsets they’ve seen before, and you’ve saved both word count and valuable story time.

And, of course, you’ll want to use telling during transitional summary. If you’re trying to get across the fact that a few months have gone by between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, you don’t need to make it into a big literary paragraph describing the changing of seasons. Maybe if you’re writing a piece of literary fiction this would be fine, but for most genres a simple “A few months passed” would work nicely. Really, it’s all about pacing. Spending too much time describing things that don’t need to be described will only slow down the overall pacing of your novel, which can be a big turn-off for most readers. Of course, there are readers who love novels that are visual-heavy, no matter how slow-paced they may be, but the average reader is used to other forms of media like film or television, where the information is presented to them quickly and precisely. There’s a fine balance that you’ve got to hit with your writing in order to appeal to these kinds of readers, which most likely make up a large percentage of your future potential audience.

As a real-life example of somebody taking the advice “Show, don’t tell” far too literally, let’s talk about a friend of mine. I’m not going to give her name, for privacy’s sake, but I will say that she is a good friend of mine. We met my freshman year of college, and she was around for the whole two months it took me to write the first draft of The Caspian Chronicles: The Forbidden Prophecy, which, for those of you who are new to this blog, is the title of my soon-to-be debut novel. Back then, it was known as The Caspian Chronicles Book One. She and I ended up exchanging novels–she had Book One of her own fantasy series written–and while my novel was a little lacking in the showing department, hers was overabundant to an extreme. The first chapter involved a full room-by-room description of the main character’s house, complete with extensive detail about the furniture, stainless steel appliances, etc. It was nearly impossible for me to make it through that first chapter, which was a shame since the rest of her novel was fantastic. Since then she’s fixed it and made the first chapter a lot more dynamic, but that just goes to show you that showing is not always the answer.

Then again, if you have an overabundance of telling instead of showing, like my first draft did, A) you’ll be selling yourself short on your possible word count, which is very important for NaNoWriMo in particular, and B) the story won’t be dynamic, and the readers most likely won’t feel invested in your novel.

I guess the moral of the story is that you need to find a balance between showing and telling. It’s not a vs. situation at all, but instead a yin and yang one, where one complements the other. You can’t have a well-written, successful novel with only showing or only telling. You have to have both.

I hope that you found this post helpful, and that you have a better understanding of the differences between showing and telling, and when it’s appropriate to use one or the other in your writing. Make sure you check back in tomorrow for Day 17, which is all about writing subplots!


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