Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Showing Vs Telling: Whom Should I Believe?

Maybe it's just me, but lately it seems everyone is blogging about "showing vs. telling." And for this I wish to thank the blogosphere. "Showing" has been one of the hardest concepts for me to grasp as a writer, and even after working on my story for nearly two years, I'm still struggling with the concept.

Now I do understand it well enough to catch the more obvious cases. For example, I realize

Everyone in the room was nervous.

is telling. And I know it's better to "show" that everyone was nervous.

Jane paced around the room in circles while George kept wringing his hands. (Lame I know, but whatever. I'm writing this during lunch.)

It's with the less obvious examples that I run into trouble and part of this confusion stems from the fact that not everyone agrees on what constitutes telling. It's easy to find conflicting views scattered across the myriad of writing blogs available. Even worse, writers often can't even agree on the amount of telling that should be allowed. On one end of the spectrum, I'll hear experts say that you should "always" show, whereas other writers will acknowledge that some telling is okay, perhaps even necessary at times, in order to keep the reader's attention. After all, showing often involves describing things to the reader in a less direct manner than telling, which requires more work on the reader's part to translate. This extra work is what makes the reader more emotionally involved -- one of the reasons for showing -- but too much showing will wear them out.

BTW, I'm firmly in the latter camp. Unless the author is very, very good, I find books that strive too hard to avoid telling often sound too writerly, and I usually put them down, unable to get into the story. On the other hand, I loved the Harry Potter books and there was a lot of telling mixed in there with the showing.

I recently came across a post by Victoria Mixon in which she discusses exposition and whether or not it should be in your story. She writes:

"Now, when you write in exposition—when you tell your story instead of showing it—you’re putting yourself in front of your characters and interpreting what they go through for your readers.

Readers don’t like that. It’s talking down to them. They really prefer to interpret for themselves."

Now, Victoria dispenses a lot of excellent advice on the art of writing, and I would strongly encourage you to read her blog, but on this point I have to respectfully disagree. Sure, poorly written exposition that's stuck into the story to make things easier for the writer is not a good thing, but for me, well written exposition can be just as enjoyable to read as dialogue. It pulls me into the world, not out of it. Just ask fans of JK Rowling or Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). Neither of them made me feel as though I was being talked down to, despite long sections of exposition. IMHO, a good dose of well written, enjoyable, and sometimes humorous exposition can be a good thing.

Now I admit that I'm still an amateur and there are plenty of things I don't know, but the Harry Potter books were rather successful, and this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. Here I am, reading books and blogs, trying to learn how to write well, so that an agent might take me seriously someday, but at the same time I'm practicing my craft by writing a story set in Rowling's world, in Rowling's style; a style that broke a lot of the so-called rules of writing (exposition, narrator intrusion, a multitude of adverbs, unusual dialogue tags, etc.)

Who should I listen to?

Perhaps you can argue that the Harry Potter books, at least the early ones, were MG, so the rules don't apply as much, but I have no idea. If that is the reason, I suspect my first real book will no doubt be MG.


  1. This issue is one of the reasons I have always liked writing in the first-person perspective (Though I seldom write anymore outside of the occasional fan fiction short). Telling just seems to come a little more natural and less obtrusive that way, though I do think you still want more show than tell. Of course, FPP has its own set of challenges.

    Out of curiosity, are you planning to make your manuscript available to the public? Apologies if you have mentioned that somewhere. I'm a relatively new reader here...

  2. No apologies needed. Everyone is a relatively new reader here.

    I was planning to release the manuscript once it was completed. Not sure what else I could do with it since it is based on Rowling's intellectual property. In the meantime, do you know anyone who would be interested in being a crit partner for what is essentially fan fiction? I'm doing this story in part as a learning experience.

    I'm not ready for first person. 3rd person just feels more natural. And I've always had a certain fondness for books with narrators that aren't hidden from view. I don't think the Harry Potter series would have been as good had Rowling not made the narrator so visible.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. FanFiction.net has a pretty active Rowling community. But it is a toss-up to find good writing sometimes. If you consider releasing there, you can request beta readers. I've never requested one myself, but I have interacted with a few folks that did and they say it was a very positive, helpful experience. Though my free time is a bit hit-and-miss these days, I'd be happy to provide feedback -though I'm not well versed in the Potter world outside of the movies (Dresden, on the other hand...). You can find my email address on the 'contact' page of my site if you want an extra pre-reader. ~Cheers and happy writing.