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Shop talk (anything and everything on writing)

Show me a story

princess rose cutting

Some of my students asked for a special class on showing and telling. So I thought I’d look it up on Google and see what other authors and experts thought. Confusing, or what?

Some experts I’ve read on the web seem to think that telling is simply not giving enough detail – as in, ‘Mr Wolf was enormous.’ And they say that showing is all about giving better description, such as, ‘Mr Wolf was as big as a tiger; he had yellow pointy teeth and a patch over one eye.’

But I think showing is also about describing a situation through a character’s feelings. So, instead of, ‘The burglar lifted a knife, and she could feel the adrenalin  rushing through her body,’ you could write, ‘The burglar lifted a knife and she breathed in quickly, her heart thudding, as she tensed to jump.’

The advantage of telling is that you can pack an enormous amount of information into a very short space. But you have to be careful that you don’t turn your text into a list of occurrences, like some kind of random, fictional cv.

She had moved into the house in April 1988. She had steamed off the wallpaper in the back bedroom three years later, and then painted the hallway in 1994 while training as a careers advisor. Today she was meeting Brian, her latest speed-dating conquest. Previously she had gone out with George a chartered accountant, and Harry a landscape gardener from Cumbernauld.

Remember, stick to the point. Keep the bits in that are relevant to her character, but junk poor old Harry, unless, of course, she’s murdered him, put him in a cupboard in the back bedroom and wallpapered over him.

Showing can really bring you into a character’s skin. But it can also slow down the action. Like this:

The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. There was a ‘for sale’ sign stuck in the hedge, and he could make out two garden gnomes by the front door. This was a faded blue and needed repainting. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.

If I had limited myself to just telling and a tiny bit of showing, I would have kept the urgency and the interest:

The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.

So, my rules of showing and telling are these:

All showing, or all telling is boring.

If you are describing action, use mostly short, telling sentences, with maybe one showing sentence.

If your characters have more time, or you want to crank up the tension, use a short ‘telling’ sentence, and then expand it with showing, like this:

It was cold in the hut. He had just put the branches together in a hurry, and there were gaps big enough for him to put his trotter through. Thin flecks of ice were forming on his little curly tail, and his legs were turning a blotchy blue. He was trembling uncontrollably. But it wasn’t because of the cold. It was because Mr Wolf was loping up his driveway.

Excerpt taken from Princess Rose, by Elaine Canham and Rose Canham, in (Waters, F. ed.) Don’t Kiss The Frog, (2008) Kingfisher, Basingstoke and Oxford.




About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I like to; even when I can't think of much to say.


12 thoughts on “Show me a story

  1. I don’t show, I don’t tell … it just happens and I try to report it honestly. I try honestly to report. Honestly I try to report? I honestly … bugger, why do I get into these things~?

    Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow—

    “Mr Argus, sir?”

    “Yes, Little Ollivia?”

    “Did you forget the pills again?”

    Writing shouldn’t be worked at. But tidying up afterwards, aaaaah, there’s the rub! (Whatever a rub is. Was)

    Posted by Argus | June 10, 2014, 9:09 pm
    • Depends what you mean by ‘worked at’. I firmly believe that writing is a skill like carpentry or playing the piano. Some people have an innate talent for it, but anyone can learn how to write reasonably well. After all writing is only a medium; a way of expressing what is inside us. Of course, writing creatively does entail ‘going with the flow’, but as you do more and more of it, you instinctively avoid pitfalls that you’ve fallen into before, while you write. Of course, then you start to think about other things…and so it goes. As for reporting, there is a set, standard way of writing a news story, that is used on all newspapers. (with minor variations). I wrote about it in Just Write It. As for editing….aaaaarghhhhhhhhhh

      Posted by elainecanham | June 10, 2014, 10:31 pm
  2. This was a good blog. I have written a serial killer novel and needed to use your advise. I am also working on the next novel called The Jew and found some of your insights quite good. By the way if you want any of this work just ask. Maybe you would enjoy it.

    Posted by awax1217 | May 5, 2014, 12:50 pm
    • I probably would enjoy it, but I’ll have to say no, otherwise I’d spend all my time reading it, instead of getting on with Stuff. But if there’s anything you’d like me to post on, just say. Thanks for reading.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 5, 2014, 12:54 pm
    • Just keep up the wisdom and I will try to use it. Sincerely Barry

      Posted by awax1217 | May 5, 2014, 12:57 pm
    • Thank you, Barry. I’m really touched by that. Generally I just write this kind of stuff to make things clear in my own head. Glad you like it.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 5, 2014, 1:01 pm
  3. “Great information!” her tired but excited fingers typed as her mind swayed like a pendulum, torn between how much to show and how little to tell

    Posted by NS | May 4, 2014, 9:20 pm
  4. I’ve never heard “show and tell” used this way: always thought it was about taking your pet tortoise to school and talking about it. You’ve got me going through my own recent stories to see if I’ve exposed more bits than necessary.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | May 4, 2014, 8:32 pm
  5. I like the idea of standing squelchily before someone, possibly with a frog on my head.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | May 4, 2014, 1:05 pm

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