Anyone who has ever taken Writing 101, or read anything about being a writer knows the classic: show, don’t tell.  We sit there and try to think of clever devices to get our stories moving and to give description without relying too heavily of adjectives.  We’re not supposed to say the wagon was red: we’re supposed to intimate that the well worn wagon carried with it the dusky hue of bruised tomatoes. (obviously something better than that- you all know that description is the bane of my writing existence).

So as a veteran of Two (yes TWO) writing classes, I now open up a book to see how the author has chosen to show not tell.  And sometimes I find brilliant ways of conveying information: many times I do not.  Right about now, my friend K is reading this and thinking “OMG- she’s back on the show don’t tell.  Didn’t she bore us enough at dinner with this conversation? I can’t believe she’s still complaining about that book…)

I recently read a book- “The Atomic City Girls”.  It contains the now common triptych story pattern- one day people will be studying the literature pattern of the 2010’s and they will ponder why this decade chose to divide books into three parts, telling three not really related stories, but miraculously have a last chapter that “unites” the three separate but equal parts.  They will wonder why authors chose to do a lousy job telling three stories when they probably could have done a lousy job with just one storyline, and then we could just say poor writing instead of confusing  and convoluted. Is  anyone wondering why I don’t review books?

But anyway.

I read this book for my book club, where yes, we do actually discuss what we read.  Our leader has a carefully thought out list of questions to stimulate conversation.  I had a rather loud conversation with the others about this book regarding show don’t tell. I don’t think there are any major spoilers as the book itself does a great job of spoiling enjoyment of reading.

One of the convoluted storylines is about a low level employee who falls in love with a scientist, so there is the obvious he’s highly educated and has money while she is poorly educated and grew up sewing her own clothes.  How do I know they fell in love?  Well, right there on page 103 (fictitious- I have no idea what page it’s on) he said “I love you.”  The preceding 102 pages did absolutely nothing to “show” that he loved her.  He talks down to her, shuts her out and doesn’t treat her well.  So the only showing the author did was to show that he was not only not a nice person, the author showed that he didn’t love her.

I brought this point up to my book club as they were oohing and aahing about how much in love the characters were.  Where are you getting that he loves her? I asked.  He says it. they fawn. The character says at the end of the book “She was the love of my life.”

She was the love of my life.  Isn’t that telling?  Where is the showing? Where was the support of the statement?

For the moment, let’s say that my novel is a love story.  (I’m trying to keep the suspense up so when you all read it you can figure out if indeed character a loved character b, and how good a job I did showing it) Assume I spend my writing time trying to devise ways to show that my characters are in love.  My question is: why am I bothering if no one really cares how well the story is told?  Is writing as well I can the point, or is the point to try to get published?

So here is my question: Do readers want to see the journey through courtship, see how the characters interact and fall in love?  Or do the words “He loved her” suffice?

Do we as readers really want to be shown, not told?

60 thoughts on “Show or Tell

  1. As a writer I always aim to draw out the emotions, and that is neither showing nor telling, but rather guiding. I want my readers to create the scene in their mind, as they feel it and not the way I tell them to imagine it. As a reader, I expect the same. Nothing drives me away from a book more than re-hashed cliches that do nothing to tickle my vivid imagination! To answer your question, the point is to write as well as you can to be proud of the publishing. How do you know you have reached that point? Read your own work and if you can cry buckets with your characters, get incredibly turned on by the love scene you have written, hate the villain you created, you have done you job.

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  2. I am a reader. Readers appreciate good writing. Some stories flow like a good breeze on a summer day. The word puctures are painted by the literary likes of a Renoir. And as a reader who works for slave wages,I want to escape (temporarily) this life. I want to solve mysteries,go riding the range,laugh…oh God yes laugh.Especially on days the boss yells.I want to escape this country side that reminds me ofa prison.

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    1. I agree with everyone if your statements. But every now and then I here people talk about books and I can’t help but wonder if we read the same book.

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  3. Writing well is definitely the point. That way we’ll buy book 2! 😄😊
    I’m definitely a show not tell reader. I don’t like a romance line where the ‘love’ is only shown when a character finally says the words. There are actions that lead up to falling in love. I want to see that.

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    1. I know!! I want to feel the characters fall in love…I want to fall in love with them myself. My greatest compliment was when my writing friend said “I’m really liking this guy” about one of my main characters. It felt good

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  4. This is an interesting post. People say “I love you” but the way they express love is often strange. For example: I wrote a poem for my husband using an analogy of an elephant (elephant in the room) to refer to his cancer. He read it and said, “this is deep but why doesn’t the meter follow…” He noticed the detail and didn’t realize I was talking about him. Hmm. I love writers I can easily follow without second thought. In our mind, we have an idea of how love looks, so we probably have already married the characters off before the writer.To each reader, his own style.

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  5. If the guy spent 102 pages being a jerk to the woman, and then out of the blue tells her “I love you”, I would not find it believable. Or, at the very least, it would not be a healthy romance (the ‘bad boy’ who is horribly rude to his paramour because of his tragic past is a major YA trope these days, and I hate it).

    If an author wants to convince me of the characters’ undying love, they need to show it.

    That said, sometimes it’s fine to just tell us a thing and not show it. I’m okay with being told the wagon is red. I don’t need a flowery description of it.

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    1. I’m not into flowery descriptions either, but I do like a characters actions to reflect the feeling. Otherwise it’s ridiculous. My daughter hates the bad boy thing in ya novels. It’s her biggest pet peeve! She thinks it’s trite and overly simplistic while trying to be out if the box…

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  6. It is a major peeve of mine when I read a book and the characters’ actions don’t match what they are saying. Most of the time in those cases the only emotion that author can evoke in me is annoyance at how ridiculous their characters come across.

    I like, more than just about anything when it comes to reading, to have my emotions fully engaged in a story. You simply cannot do that if all you are doing is telling the reader. It is nearly impossible to have a reader connect and sink into your story if all you are doing it telling them how they should feel. As a writer, you have to find a way to connect your reader to your characters and your story and that just simply isn’t realistic if all you are doing is telling them they should.

    You can show them in lots of creative ways without being overly verbose, though. For me, it is like listening to a truly amazing singing talent that is capable of a wide range of things with their voice and they choose to do EVERY single one of those things in every song they ever sing. Just because you can, does not mean that you should. Just because you have a massive vocabulary, does not mean you need to use all those words in a single book or that you should use 20 words for a sentence that would be perfect with only 4 while still conveying the same thing.

    In the end, it is like so many other things, it is about finding a good balance. That and… everyone is looking for something when they read. Not everyone will find the same things in the same book and is why you sometimes see wildly differing opinions on the same novel.

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    1. Evoking emotion is extremely important. I always remember to tell my writing group that. When I review a chapter they’ve given me I always say how did this make me feel, and I have have told them that the chapter is evoking the wrong emotion of what they’re trying to get across. It’s hard with my own writing though…I think I’ve showed loneliness, but it comes across as rude…evoking emotion is really hard. But when done right…..

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  7. The words aren’t enough for me. It’s gestures and how he looks at her and how they interact with act other. Its emotion. Anyone can say I love you. It’s a different to show that love

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  8. I want to be shown, not told. But I’m an old school English major who might not be in tune with the mainstream. I like a sense of exploration, seeing/feeling what the characters are up to, when I’m reading a book.

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  9. You know, a person will always tell you who they are. Sometimes they use words. So, in real life, when a person loves, they, in some way, show it. It may be barely perceptible, but it’s there. Likewise is true if a person hates. If they haven’t given us at least a glimpse of what they really feel, we think they are crazy (or we are!) when they finally tell us what they are thinking. There’s simply a disconnect. Show is always better than tell.

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  10. 🙂 Agreed. Most readers are not discerning, but better-written books are held in higher esteem and are more timeless.
    And, I agree that you can just say the wagon is red. Your concern over emotions is exactly where I’d put the “showing.” The reader being led through thoughts and emotions and situations with the character (as Frogdiva said) will be a more memorable experience for said reader.

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  11. Yes, definitely show me, don’t just tell me! I need to fall in love with the character’s heart and their personality, etc. and that doesn’t happen by just being told about them.

    Also for me the point is to write your very best, not just to get published! What is the point of being published if you didn’t put your best behind it? To me that is cheating the reader, to just throw something out there. Write with your heart, whether you get published or not, if writing is your passion, then I feel you will.

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  12. Contemporary creative writing classes (and books) will tell you to show not tell. It’s their mantra. However, there are many examples of Nobel prize winners and many classics where the authors explicitly just say it. Go figure!

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    1. Very good point. I know that sometimes I like things put cleanly and simply. But I do like to see a character act in a certain way. Brings me into the story

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  13. I’m with you! “I love you” is just fine as long as it’s backed up by the narrative. Otherwise the words are meaningless—just as in real life. And that’s the crux of it, right? I read tons of sci-fi, and I’m willing to suspend belief when the science is above my head and the fiction is overly fantastic, but with human emotions I refuse to be bought with cheap phrases. There’s my rant for today.

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  14. I think “show don’t tell” is overused and over-rated. Personally, I think the purpose of “showing” in literature is so that our books don’t just come across as a lecture where we are told everything and quickly get bored. But some telling is absolutely necessary to get the point across, I think. It’s just like description: less is more, but it has to be there.
    All that aside, I know I have plowed through really bad writing to finish a book if I am caught up in the story line and carry about the characters, even if I do mutter the occasional oath as I wade through a particularly bad passage. So I say, write about what you want to write about in a way that would make you want to read your own book, and let it go at that!
    PS: Is it wrong to say that I actually think I’d enjoy your book reviews????

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    1. I know what you mean about it being overrated. I don’t like heavy description, both reading and writing wise. I prefer simple , clear cut language, but I like the ideas to be thought provoking. Sometimes those two things don’t marry…..can you imagine my book reviews? Suffice to say they might be entertaining….😀😉

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  15. To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m being shown or told when I’m reading. I just appreciate a good story that gets my attention and holds it through humor, drama, suspense, or whatever. However that’s accomplished, I’m happy. 🤷🏽‍♀️

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      1. Funny. While my husband was getting ready for work I was telling him about the book I’m reading now, Baby Teeth. (Something’s terribly wrong with the child in that book. 🤦🏽‍♀️) Anyway, I was telling him about the things she does. And he kept asking me why she’s doing those things. And I thought of your post. I explained to him that the author is showing us what the girl’s doing, but not telling us why. That’s part of the suspense. Wondering what’s wrong with her, and why she’s doing what she’s doing. He got it. 😊

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