Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Showing versus Telling: SUBTLE TELLING

I'm back from the Oregon SCBWI retreat in Silver Falls, energized to write and revise! I met for a one-on-one critique with a very knowledgeable agent, Kelly Sonnack of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. She pointed out places in my sample chapter where I (gasp! me???) had been Telling instead of Showing. Come to find out, there are varying levels of Telling, and while I know how to avoid some of it, particularly adverbs, I have been guilty of the more subtle and less obvious kinds.

My roomie at the retreat had taken a class on the subject of Telling, and shared her notes with me:

Categories of Telling/where you'll find Telling:
1. Backstory and flashbacks (related to info dumps; only say what's necessary for the present)
2. Pure explanation (exposition) told by the narrator/narration
3. Explanation of character motives
4. Telling in dialogue
5. Showing AND Telling interspersed
6. Sneaky Telling (short 1 or 2 words inserted in an otherwise strong sentence)
7. Telling in internal monologues


I reached Geometry class and sat with the other guys. Tara was already there, looking hot as usual in tight jeans and a bright pink t-shirt. I thought about the first time I'd seen her. She'd bumped into me by the lockers, and had fluttered her eyelashes in a wondrous way, apologizing. I had laughed and told her it was okay, meeting her eyes with boldness before picking up her books from the floor. But since then, I hadn't been able to capture the magic freshness of that moment. Now, it was all klutzy and awkward conversations, and worshipping her from afar. I sighed, casting her a longing glance across the room.

This example Tells about the main character's experience as a memory or flashback. It also Tells of subsequent awkward conversations in a distant manner, rather than showing the scene with dialogue to let the reader see that klutziness firsthand. Readers want to experience things WITH the main character, not be a faraway spectator. This would be a much stronger passage if written as an awkward dialogue between the protagonist and Tara. Let the reader draw his/her own conclusions! The details of the past could also be worked in more naturally, and with less Telling.

Sneaky Telling
"Cool!" she said, pleased. "I can be ready tomorrow by six."

This is an example of #6, sneaky Telling, with one blatant and unneeded word inserted here. You don't need the word "pleased" in this sentence, because you already know this girl is pleased from her words.

Explanation Telling (from my novel, SHAPERS)
Credits didn't grow on trees, and she'd literally sweated for her pay. Yeah, she'd spend a little of her earnings on fun stuff, but most of it she'd save to attend tech school. She wanted an education beyond the worthless college e-classes the government provided at no cost. If she didn't, she'd be stuck forever on a financial hamster-wheel like Mom and Dad.

I had to omit this paragraph in my rewrite, since Kelly (the agent) marked it as Telling. I wanted to get the main character's motivations in, but this was too expository, dumped here all in one place. The only part I kept to let the reader know the main character's motivations was the following 2 lines, tagged onto another paragraph about the main character wanting to end her current job:

Forget the monumental pay. She could find a different, less brutal, method to save up for tech school tuition.

This got the information in that she wanted to go to tech school, but hopefully in a less explanatory, Telling way. Sometimes less is more, and the particular wording makes the difference. (Note: I might add the line about the hamster wheel later somewhere, since I rather like it.)

Do YOU have Telling in your writing? Good luck, weeding it out! On that note, off I go to slash and revise my own novel some more.

Other sites that have been discussing Showing versus Telling lately:


  1. telling can so often creep into our writing without us noticing. These are great examples.

  2. Thanks, Lynda! Sometimes Telling is necessary (I mean, you wouldn't want to show EVERYthing) but you want to keep it to a minimum and not bore your reader with background and dry details.


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