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.