SHOWING AND TELLING:
Seven Ways to Help Your Writing Breathe
A Craft Essay by Billy Dean
“Show-don’t-tell” is fine advice—unless you apply it absolutely, as if you should always show and never tell. But there are no absolute rules in good writing. Here are seven ways your prose and poetry can breathe with both showing and telling.
#1 Body & Mind
We know more about the world with our bodies than with our minds because we are more directly connected to reality through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. When you want readers to participate with their imagination, engage their senses with words aimed at their bodies.
Penny watched a rabbit hop under the snow-covered rosemary, ears down and alone.
Stories with nothing but imagery, however vivid and beautiful, can be boring and pointless unless you give readers a context for what you are showing them, and why. When you want readers to participate with their intellect, engage their understanding with words aimed at their brains.
Penny glanced at her cell phone. Five bars. Why hasn’t he called?
#2 Peaks & Valleys
Exploit the distinction between words aimed at the mind and words aimed at the body with “peaks” of showing and “valleys” of telling. Peaks are high points when your readers are holding their breath, and valleys are low points when they are pondering what they saw on the peaks. Juxtaposing peaks and valleys grounds images in information.
Jim pulled the pistol out of the glove box and pushed the barrel under his chin.
Doctor Evans had told him there was no cure, but Jim had a cure. Life sucks, then you die—alone, angry and full of regrets.
#3 Scene & Summary
Your setting will be a boring, irrelevant background for the action and the dialog unless it merges images and information to set the stage for your plot, your character’s mood, and what can happen.
Most stories alternate “scene” writing—which shows readers what happened—with “summary” writing—which tells readers what happened. The trick is to balance scene with summary, showing with telling, facts with feelings, and imagery with information.
The sky was filled with dark, threatening clouds. In the distance, lightning could be seen but not heard. Like small children, the men huddled near the fire, seeking its warmth and familiar glow. Hank looked up. The storm was moving their way. He reached forward and poked the smoldering fire with his cane.
He would tell the story again, tonight, because, in the story, the world promised what might have been. Outside the story, the world closed in again, actual, bare and unyielding.
#4 Brevity & Presence
Showing can be more precise than telling, whereas telling can be more concise than showing. Precise details give your readers more sensory-oriented information to enhance their presence in the story, as in example A, below. By contrast, a concise telling gives your readers fewer details to compress time so they are not burdened with every aspect of a character’s preparation for the real action ahead, as in example B.
A) Sharon pulled into her space at the Oak Knoll Apartments, turned off the engine, got out and heard the satisfying beep as she tapped her remote. She climbed the stairs to her apartment, unlocked her door, and closed it behind her. She tossed her purse on the dinner table, kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the bed. Lying there with her face buried in the soft, pillowy comforter, a dark wave came over her.
Remembering she had forgotten to lock her door, she rolled off her bed, walked to the door and felt, as much as heard, the snick of the deadbolt as it slid home through the strike plate of the sill. Would she ever feel safe again?
She poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. She opened her purse and saw the canister of pepper spray Anthony had given her. She resisted the urge to grab it and pretend to point it at Jack’s face. Instead of seeing the spray transform his arrogance into anguish, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under his ape-like brow, and his voice mocking her with a growling, “You brought pepper spray to a gunfight? Want me to break your neck or just shoot you?”
B) Sharon was afraid the compound would be guarded by dogs. So she tossed a canister of pepper spray in her purse before leaving the house.
You noticed, of course, that we don’t know what’s bothering Sharon. The first example doesn’t tell us why she no longer feels safe, and the second omits her reasons in the interest of brevity. Both are missing context, which is neither necessarily good or bad. It all depends on your motives for keeping your readers in the dark. Perhaps you want to enhance suspense or save a surprise for later in the story. Whatever the reason, keep in mind that showing without telling and telling without showing can be boring, pointless and confusing unless you give readers a context for what you are showing or telling them, and why.
Too much or too little of anything is unbalanced. When it comes to showing or telling, we can balance our writing with a combination of both to enhance both presence and brevity with context. Below is a third example demonstrating how to alternate scene and summary to move your readers from imagery to information:
C) When Sharon got home, she kicked off her shoes and poured herself a drink—vodka without the rocks. A wave of fear washed over her. In her mind’s eye, she saw a guard, hairy and huge as a gorilla, his black eyes boring into her under an ape-like brow, his hand on his gun. [Scene]
Anthony was asking her to risk her job, her career—maybe even her life. For what? The cause? Him? They hadn’t even slept together. One date, two drinks, and a kiss on the cheek as they said goodnight. She was a legal secretary, not a spy. And how would she get into the place? Even if she got past the dogs, the guards, and the locked doors, how would she know which disk had the data that Anthony needed to put Jack and his crooked buddies behind bars? [Summary]
#5 Convey & Evoke
Telling can move your story forward, speed up the pace, and spare your readers from long, boring passages. But, as we have seen, it can also leave your readers standing outside your story like spectators. Telling readers how a character feels is trying to elicit an emotional response with words rather than with sensory clues. Think of words as handles to carry the idea of a feeling from writer to reader, not the feeling itself. Instead of directly informing your readers about a character’s feelings, as in the first example below, show them the symptoms so they can participate with their own emotions, as in the second example.
A) Shirley was so sad she wanted to die.
B) Shirley stood on the cliff watching the waves crash against the rocks below.
Let’s examine these differences in greater detail. In example A, above, readers are limited to what the narrator is telling them about the character’s feelings. But it’s merely a description of the character’s inner thoughts—as if the narrator is pointing at the character from a distance. The narrator becomes more present than the character. And that makes it more likely that the readers will not identify with the character in a personal way because they, too, feel distant from the character.
In example B, the narrator has all but disappeared because the narration, not the narrator, is showing the character in a particular situation. And that increases the likelihood that readers will feel little or no distance between themselves and the character in the scene. Most are likely to feel as if they are standing on that cliff with the character.
#6 Clarity, Curiosity & Closure
Showing can be more subtle than telling. But you don’t want to be so subtle that your readers feel like they’re working a crossword puzzle without the clues, as in example A, below. You can be both subtle and clear, as in example B. And you can achieve clarity by igniting your reader’s curiosity, then satisfying it with closure, as in example C:
A) With every step across that furrowed field, Sylvia heard the rumble hammering her ears get closer, louder—more like a mongoose circling a cobra than the moon orbiting earth.
B) Sylvia watched Jake drive away with Jean, her best friend, in that truck they painted three summers ago—the one his dad gave her to repair so Jake could drive it when he turned 16. He’d never know how much she loved that truck, the rust bleeding through its other color.
C) Her gold ring tossed on the tracks was no match for iron wheels rolling into the station. She would leave Jake and buy a ticket to tomorrow, where she would go, with alacrity, alone.
#7 Walking the Dog
My goal has been to convince you that your best writing will result from asking yourself, How do I want my readers to respond to that sentence, this scene, my story? rather than, Did I follow the hallowed rules of writing?
Even my show-and-tell suggestions might keep you from your best writing if you follow them absolutely. So let’s examine another rule some writers apply absolutely, a rule they justify by saying that Anton Chekhov told us to avoid all adjectives and adverbs because the use of modifiers constitutes telling. He didn’t say that. He said, Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.
Chekhov advised us to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Being too specific is like walking your dog on a short leash: your readers won’t be free enough to bring your words to life with their own imagination and intellect. Being too is like walking your dog on a 30-foot leash: your readers will wander off the path you want them on. In the first example below, I haven’t crossed out all my adverbs and adjectives. I’ve crossed out as many as I could to ensure my readers will respond as I intended:
Little Tommy pedaled his younger sister’s old JC Higgins bicycle to her elementary school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before any of his friends saw its girly-pink seat and sissy-blue ribbons twirling conspicuously from the bent handlebars.
The second example, the same text minus extraneous modifiers, gives my reader freedom to imagine a vivid scene—without wandering off the path I’ve chosen:
Tommy pedaled his sister’s bicycle to school as quickly as he could, hoping he’d get there before his friends saw its pink seat and the blue ribbons twirling from the handlebars.
Billy Dean is a retired technical writer with degrees in English and Engineering. His essays, how-to guides, poems, and stories have been published in trade journals and magazines, and on the Internet. His goals are to craft prose and poetry loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.