Writing a Narrative by Showing and Telling

There are two ways of writing a narrative. One is by showing and the other is by telling. It is how you combine these two techniques that will ultimately determine your novel's success.

If you have spent any time studying the art and craft of novel writing, you will doubtless have come across this golden rule: Show, Don't Tell.

What does it mean? Is it a good rule? How, precisely, do you show and tell?

Before getting down to business, let me first say that mastering the art of showing and telling is critical to your success. (So don't skip this material!)

Understanding how to write a narrative through showing and telling - and knowing when to do each one - is the very essence of structuring a publishable novel.

Writing a Narrative by Showing

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
- Anton Chekov

Showing means writing fiction in such a way that the readers feel as though they are there - seeing the sights and hearing the sounds and experiencing the events for themselves...

  • If the wind blows, they feel it on their skin.
  • If the character is embarrassed, the readers blush with them.
  • If a shot is fired, they flinch.

In short, showing is all about involving the readers...

  • If a writer tells the readers that a character is repellent, they only have the writer's word for it.
  • If the writer shows them the character's pockmarked face and the smell of stale vomit on their breath, the readers are truly repelled (just like you are now).

Take a look at this sentence (it is pure telling)...

Pencarrick was a quaint Cornish fishing village where the pace of life was very slow.

Here is how I actually wrote it (or showed it) in my novel...

Beth loved Pencarrick. She loved the twisting streets and the impossibly narrow lanes and back alleys, where two cars moving in the opposite direction was all it took for grid lock. She loved how the white-washed fishermen's cottages didn't share a straight line between them, and how they huddled together on the hillside against the worst of the Atlantic storms. She loved the salt in the air and that strange blueness in the light and falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves. Most of all, Beth loved how everything in Pencarrick took just as long as it took, as if the passing of time was measured not in hours and minutes but by the lazy turnings of the tide.

Writing a Narrative by Telling

Telling is the exact opposite of showing. If showing is characterized by evocative details and sensory impressions, telling remains stubbornly lifeless.

The readers will find it impossible to experience the people and places and events in any meaningful way because you are giving them virtually nothing to respond to.

  • You tell them that a character is handsome but don't say how they are handsome.
  • You tell them that a sunset is breathtaking but don't say in what way it takes the breath away.
  • You tell them that a character is miserable but fail to demonstrate their misery.

However, the one thing that telling has in its favor is that it is concise and to the point. Telling allows the writer to say in a very small space what it would take many paragraphs (or pages) to say using showing.

Brevity is telling's saving grace, and without it us novel writers would be in trouble.

While it is true that Show, Don't Tell is a good rule of thumb to follow, it is only true for part of the time. Sometimes, Tell, Don't Show is a much more useful maxim to follow.

Where to Show and Tell

Showing and telling applies to ALL aspects of writing a narrative...

It applies to introducing characters...

TELLING...

Jack Stratton was a shy man, particularly around women.

SHOWING...

Jack Stratton stood outside the delicatessen's in the rain, searching for the courage to open the door and step inside. Rita was behind the counter as usual, slicing ham with her back to him...

It applies to describing your novel's setting...

TELLING...

It was a hot day.

SHOWING...

The tarmac was already turning sticky in the morning heat...

It applies to presenting action...

TELLING...

Helen crashed her car on the way to work.

SHOWING...

Helen didn't see the truck until it was too late. She didn't even hear the horn until she sat slumped at the wheel tasting her own blood and...

And it even applies to writing dialogue...

TELLING...

Over dinner, John informed his wife their marriage was over.

SHOWING...

"There's no easy way to say this," said John as he struggled to swallow the over cooked chicken...

(Notice that I had to finish all the "showing" examples with an ellipsis (...) because writing them in full would have taken up too much space.)

More On Showing and Telling

Taken to its logical extreme, you could tell a novel in a few words...

Once upon a time, a boy met a girl and decided to win her heart. Their courtship didn't go altogether smoothly, but they eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after.

And that's it. End of story. At the opposite extreme, showing this novel could take billions of words.

Just the opening scene, when the boy first lays eyes on the girl, could take something the size of War and Peace if you account for every second of time and include everything the boy sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches, together with every thought that passes through his head and every memory that is triggered.

Somewhere between these two extremes lies a conventionally-sized novel. And showing and telling, like a rudder on a boat, is how you steer a sensible course between the two extremes.

Now, the main way to bring down the word count of a novel to a reasonable level (80 to 100,000 words) is to leave a lot of stuff out altogether.

For example, if the boy-meets-girl story lasts for a year, there will be large blocks of time within that year in which nothing much happens. So if nothing interesting happens in March and April, you can cover it with a simple "Two months later..." (You can think of this as extreme telling.)

Of the events that you do decide to keep in the novel, some will be more dramatic than others...

  • Some events will be emotional or exciting (or whatever) and definitely ones the readers will want to linger on. These you will show.
  • Other events will be necessary but a little on the dull side. These can be told.

The same thing, incidentally, applies to descriptions of the characters or the landscape...

  • The first time the boy sees the girl, a lengthy description of her beauty will be called for. (i.e. Showing.)
  • The second time he sees her, telling will suffice: "She looked even more stunning than he remembered."

Generally speaking, the important events in a novel are the "scenes", and the not-so-crucial ones the "interludes".

  • Scenes, you will remember from the section on Plotting a Novel, are where the character tries to achieve a short-term goal in the face of opposition. They are presented in real time (as opposed to speeded-up time or skipped-over time) and are full of vivid details and sensory description. In short, they are shown.
  • Interludes are those quieter, in-between parts, where the character reacts emotionally to what has just happened. Because reaction is generally less interesting and dramatic than action, interludes are usually told.

Except showing and telling isn't quite that simple...

Most scenes in a novel will benefit from a little telling thrown into the mix, just as most interludes can be improved by some showing.

In short, showing and telling can happen anywhere in a novel.

Scenes can become bloated and heavy-going if they are all show and no tell. Sometimes the reader doesn't want a two-page description of your character trying to get up the nerve to enter a delicatessen shop. Half a page would be quite enough.

So you could begin the paragraph with a sentence or two of telling...

Jack Stratton was a shy man, particularly around women. But when he loved the woman, like Rita Jones from the delicatessen's, his shyness paralyzed him.

Then follow it with a few sentences of showing...

He had stood outside the shop for almost an hour now, shivering in the rain and searching in the puddles for the courage to step inside.

Here are some other ways to condense a scene by telling...

  • You can fast-forward through any dull bits in a scene. Say you are writing a scene set in a restaurant which threatens to drag on and on with no end in sight. You could show the conversation as the characters eat their starters, get the main course out the way with a brief paragraph of telling, before switching back to showing-mode when the desserts arrive and the conversation heats up again.
  • And you can condense any long speeches to a line or two. Say in the restaurant scene a character has to explain why he is late. It is a complicated story and might take up a page or more, and it really isn't that important. So you could reduce it to a couple of lines by saying something like: Fred took his seat and told Martha he was so sorry for being late. Over martinis, he explained how the taxi driver had taken the wrong turn and...

With interludes, you have the opposite problem...

Instead of becoming bloated like scenes, interludes can become clinical and unsatisfying.

Of course, sometimes clinical is precisely what you want. (Sometimes a "Two days later" is all you need to get from one scene to the next.)

But sometimes interludes are important for demonstrating how a character reacts emotionally to what has just happened, and how they prepare for whatever is to come next.

Let's say your character has just had a fight with his wife and she threw him out...

In the interlude, you describe him driving to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows: "Frank drove to The Horseshoe and took a seat at the bar. It took six large vodkas before his heart stopped pounding."

Getting him from the previous scene to the next one in two sentences like that might be all you need to do.

But maybe in the middle of this interlude you could include a few snippets of dialogue between Frank and the waitress, just to put a little meat on the bones of the interlude and make it a richer experience for the novel's readers.

Like I said earlier, "Show, Don't Tell" is a useful rule of thumb. But, as with all such rules, you must learn when to ignore it.