Showing vs. Telling: Round Two

Last week on Writing All Wrong, we touched upon the ongoing battle between “showing and telling” in writing.

You may “know show,” but can you “tell telling?” They don’t call it “storytelling” for nothing. Perhaps we should find some unbribed referees and make this a fairer fight.

That’s why we’re Writing All Wrong.

Writing All Wrong:

I hear the “show vs. tell” mantra to know that telling something I shouldn’t be doing in writing. But should I? Doesn’t “telling” also have its place? How are they all that different. I figure you will have some smart answer to this so I await your response.

—Rachel Kovac, Thornton, Co.

And here’s where we let “telling” take Round Two. Can’t have one without the other, no matter how many pseudo-purists tell you otherwise. Heck, they tell you to show more. That should tell you something indeed. Some takeaways on telling:

Telling is underrated.

“Oh,” the pedant cries, “it’s writing, don’t you know! You can tell anyone anything. Showing is the sizzle of the steak, dear writer.”

This guy needs to sock it. Showing might be the sizzle and the shizzle, but telling is your beef. It does more with less (if done right). It keeps the car in gear. Compare:

“The fire raged to the last vestige of the house. The roof caved at last, crushing all his belongings with a punishing blow. He allowed an exasperated breath to pass from between his lips, carrying with it the air of long-held, pent-up desperation.”

You can just say: “He sighed.”

I think we get it. You tell a little, and you let your reader do more reading into it. Don’t do the thinking for your reader.

Telling hammers home the nail of showing.

“The stallion’s eyes become one with the black. The foaming ceased. He was dead.”

Anything past that, and you’re beating a dead horse. Literally. You don’t have to show it all when you can drive the point home with a forceful tell.

Telling is the soul of dialogue.

You may be a master showman, but you’re going to be a master cheesman as well if you don’t get your telling in line when it comes time to dialogue:

“‘How?’” she asked, barely hiding her confusion.

“With the spray cheese canister,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You can rig just about any of them to explode,” he explained, sensing the worry in her voice.

“But why?” Elena pressed. “Couldn’t he have gone . . . some other way?” Her voice trailed off, audibly conveying her hopelessness and dismay.”

You can show less, tell more, and fail much less if you stop trying to show the dialogue. Observe:

“How?”

“Spray cheese canister,” he said. “You can rig just about any of them to explode.”

“But why?” Elena pressed. “Couldn’t he have gone . . . some other way?”

Showing off your dialogue gets annoying. Don’t waste effort on annoying your reader, please.

Tell what you don’t have time to show.

It wasn’t about the money, he explained. She’d been unfaithful. Too many walruses and seals. Not enough orcas.

I don’t think you’d have the time nor space to “show” me all of that. I’m sure it’d be a fun read, but you’ve told me enough to keep me reading regardless. Nothing at all wrong with that.

Care to tell me about how you use your telling?

Writing All Wrong can be reached via email (WritingAllWrong@me.com) and followed on Twitter (@WritingAllWrong).

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