“Show, don’t tell!” This writing advice is everywhere. But what does it mean, how is it done, and why should writers bother? Join Stephanie and Angela as they dive headfirst into one of the most difficult topics in writing, because a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture clearly painted with words is priceless!
Stephanie: I’m Stephanie, the managing editor at Dog Ear Publishing, and here with me is Angela.
Angela: Hello everyone.
Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years, and in this podcast we try to take some of the confusion out of writing and publishing your book.
Today we are going to discuss the differences between showing and telling. We are going to start off with an example, which is one of my favorite passages ever from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat. It was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly road door like a porthole, painted green with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel, a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats. The hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill. “The hill” as all the people from many miles round called it, and many little round doors open out of it. First on one side, and then on another.”
I really love this passage because it instantly creates a picture. You know exactly what this place looks like, and long before the “Lord of the Rings” movies came out, I had this perfect image of the hobbit hole that looked exactly like it did in the movies.
Angela: It’s a beautiful … I know Tolkien always gets that kind of rep as this super verbose writer, but it is such a clear picture. You have no doubt in your mind you can kind of watch in your mind’s eye that painting of the scene.
Stephanie: Right, it’s beautiful. He was wonderful at painting pictures with words, at least in “The Hobbit” in my experience.
There’s a big difference between showing versus telling. There was a hole in the ground where a hobbit lived. It was dry and it had lots of pegs. That’s kind of the telling way.
Angela: I think that whole idea of show versus telling, if you sit and try to wrap your brain around it, it can be a mind bender.
Stephanie: Really, it can.
Angela: Basically think of watching a video with the sound turned off. How do you have any idea what’s happening? There’s no narrator, so you’re being shown images rather than told. Instead of someone saying, “He smiled,” you might see upturned lips, or a sparkle in someone’s eye. When we’re saying show don’t tell, we mean if a woman is walking into a house, we want to know how she’s doing that. Is she crossing the threshold nervously? Is she slamming open a door and stomping inside? Is she hesitating with her hand on the doorknob? It doesn’t have to be every, single image.
Sometimes a building is just an old building. You don’t have to write a paragraph for every single item that you put into a book. It needs to still be clear and concise, but it also needs to be able to build the structure of the scene that you’re trying to create within the reader’s mind, right?
Stephanie: Right. You don’t see everything in a movie. You might zoom in on the shaking hand that’s opening the door, and so that’s what you have to decide as the author is what you’re drawing the reader’s attention to, and very, very carefully determining what you want the reader to know about that scene.
Angela: Yeah, and what they need to be focused on.
Stephanie: Yeah, exactly. I’m always fond of saying that the author is the tour guide. It’s their job to show the reader exactly what they need to see. Showing the points of interest out of the tour bus window.
Angela: So you may be-
Stephanie: And I really-
Angela: Go ahead.
Stephanie: Go ahead.
Angela: I was just going to say, so you’re going to be seeing some of the things out the window, but there’s a lot of things that are probably not going to be described in detail just because you’re passing them by fast or they’re kind of not important at all to the story.
Stephanie: Right. I do want to make one distinction as well. When we say show we are talking about other senses as well. You mentioned turning the sound off on the movie, but then I consider a movie that I just watched the other day … A lot of people don’t realize the music that’s in movies. The point here is in a movie I watched the other day, there was very little music. I knew that the filmmaker was trying to focus on the specific ambient noises in the background because they were important in this case.
When you’re writing, sometimes remember to focus on all the senses as appropriate. Sometimes you want to focus on a character’s sense of taste, or the things that a character is hearing. It really is going to depend on what you’re trying to highlight, but those can help set the mood, or they can help give you an insight into the character on what they’re noticing, what they’re really picking up on.
Angela: I like that actually. I think if you put a blindfold over your eyes, all those other senses get heightened. The sense of smell and the taste and everything else.
I love the idea too of using those, I guess what the character is able to pick up on and making that almost part of what makes the character who he or she is.
Stephanie: Exactly because different people notice different things, and you can always … what is it? You have 20 different witnesses to something, and they’re all going to tell a different story.
Stephanie: It’s the same thing with your characters.
Angela: That’s actually a really good point.
We have kind of something fun that we’re going to try today. Instead of conversing, Stephanie has an exercise that’s going to help you guys get started with showing verses telling. It comes from our article, “Settling into Showing”. It was just a two-part, wasn’t it that you wrote?
Stephanie: Yeah, it was the two-part show and tell.
Angela: Basically she’s going to walk you through, I guess the best word for it is an exercise that’s going to prepare you to get started on showing versus telling with your writing.
Stephanie: Really the best way to do this is to be sitting comfortably something where it’s nice and quiet and alone. Don’t do this in your car. Don’t do this while you’re paying attention to something else very important. The whole point of this is to really block everything else out, and to really get focused on the story, on the scene that you’re going to describe.
As you’re preparing to write, we’re going to assume right now that you’re preparing to write, and so you need to sit down, relax, take a couple of nice deep breaths. Release your stress. Make sure you take deep breaths. Hold them and then let them out. You’re trying to oxygenate your brain. You think better when you have lots of oxygen in your body.
Make yourself comfortable., Imagine you’re sitting in a nice, cozy study in a comfortable chair in front of a fireplace. It’s chilly today, it’s October … No it’s November now. Imagine yourself in front of a fireplace in a nice comfy chair. Keeping your eyes closed, think of the fire and how it’s crackling. It’s crackling in front of you, warming you. Once you’ve got that in your mind, and you can hear the flames, you can hear them crackle, you can hear the logs cracking.
Imagine yourself in your most comfortable clothes. Think of a small table next to you. Think of the height of the table, what it looks like, and on that table is a cup of your favorite beverage, whatever you’d like it to be. A cup or a glass. Maybe it’s an adult beverage. Maybe it’s a nice hot cup of tea or coffee. The point is it should be relaxing, and it should be something that you savor. Take a sip of it, and taste it on your tongue. Really, really taste it. Is it tart? Is it sweet? Does it make your mouth tingle somewhere? Is it cool? Is it warm? Swallow it and feel it travel down. Actually feel it, the heat or the cold, as it travels down into your stomach.
Again, really start to feel the heat of the fire. Feel the chair embracing you. Feel the cushion under your seat, and the back of it supporting your weight. Hear the crackle of the logs again. Smell the smoke coming off of the logs. Hear the sap popping. Feel the heat on your face and hands. You really, really have to make sure that you’re hearing and feeling and seeing and tasting these things because that’s how you’re going to describe these things to your readers. You have to really draw your own self into that scene, so that you can effectively describe it to your readers.
Take as much time as you need. You can pause this if you need to, to really focus on all of those aspects. If you want, you can even paint the room around you. Look up and see what the will next to you on your left looks like. What the wall looks like on the right. Look at the floor. Just imagine this as if you are trying to describe this scene to your reader and everything that you are experiencing.
Now, once you’re finally settled, you can come back if you’ve paused for a while, you can come back. Now imagine another chair in front of you and you see a friend there. Someone you haven’t seen in a while. This is going to be your audience. Your friend doesn’t know the story you’re going to tell, but the friend is looking forward to it eagerly. You’re going to catch up on years of being apart, and so you’re going to tell this really engaging story. Enjoy letting the suspense build in your friend. Sit there and squint off in the distance, deliberately looking just a little bit away from your audience member, and think about the details of the story, and decide how you’re going to recount them.
Now you can start writing your story. You can come out of your visualization, just a little bit, just enough to actually write your story. Write the story using the words you would use to tell your friend. Settle in. Tell the longer tale in all its glory. Show the details. Remember all of the things that make the story compelling. All the flavors that are important. The taste. The sense. All of the lighting, the ambient noises, everything that is going to really tell that story and really convey the details. Think of how the main character felt in the moment, and then convey that to the reader as clearly as possible, explaining how the main character’s body responded to the feeling.
An example of this is if the character’s heart raced, did his breathing also quicken? If the character’s throat got clogged by emotion, did it affect her ability to speak or breathe. Remember as you tell the story, as you’re writing the story, also imagine yourself actually telling it to this audience member, this friend who’s sitting across from you in the chair, and imagine the response that is created in this person when you tell your story. Maybe you want to evoke a certain emotion, but as you tell the story you realize that your audience member is not going to respond the way you want. Maybe you’re going to go back and revisit that. That’s important. Remember to also visualize the way that your audience member is going to react.
Share the details that you really want to share to elicit the reaction that you want. Keep writing those details as they come to you. If you need to, maybe you need to describe everything so that you can really focus on letting the words come out. Maybe you need to have a voice recorder, and you can focus on letting the words come out while you just envision everything. Maybe you work better at typing while you’re thinking instead. Whatever works for you, but you can come back to this exercise repeatedly, and do it as much as you need to. Create your own version of it, and walk yourself through it. That’s how, when I’m writing fiction, that is what always works for me.
Angela: I think I speak for everyone when I say that we’re all completely relaxed now, and I would love to be in front of a crackling fire with my feet up on an ottoman and a nice blanket and a hot cup of tea.
Stephanie: That does sound nice, doesn’t it?
Angela: It’s amazing too once you’ve let your brain slow down and taking away those distractions. The kids need me, I’ve got to go and work on the computer and answer an email and oh my gosh the washes and stuff. Once those are gone, the want to write and the ability to write seems to come out naturally. I think maybe that’s why they always say you get your best ideas in the showers, right?
Stephanie: Probably because you’re nice and relaxed.
Angela: Yeah, exactly. Thank you for that exercise. That actually helped me. That gave me some good ideas about what I need to do when I start writing again. I guess the only thing I would add is that once you’ve got everything written down that you want to write down, you’re going to have to go back and do some revision. You’re going to want to take any of the details that draw attention away from what you want your reader to focus on. Before we were describing, you know you’re painting this picture and you’ve got all of these adjectives. Now we need to go back and look at those adjectives and say, “Okay, do we really need to describe the caulk on the wall? Is that important to the story,” or what about the cat lying on the rug. Is that important to the story? If it doesn’t advance the plot, we always say, “Get rid of it.”
Angela: It’s just superfluous. It doesn’t need to be in there. It distracts readers. It bores them. Let it go.
Stephanie: Right, and remember there’s always … I can never remember the quote exactly or who said it, but somebody a couple hundred years ago. I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have time to edit,” or something like that. It’s really getting out all the superfluous stuff, like you said. We wanted to include all of this detail because we need to get ourselves in that frame of reference. Eventually you’ll find the balance of only including the details that you want to include and not all the other stuff. It is definitely better to get too much out there, and then cut back the unnecessary then trying to come in later and trying to recreate a scene.
Angela: Yes, I completely agree with you. Adding is a lot harder than taking away. We always talk about finding test readers, beta readers, to look at these things before you send them out to publishers. This is a great question to ask them, “As you were reading the book, did you feel like you were transported into the scene? Was it immersive? Did anything catch your attention that later on you were wondering, ‘Wait a minute? Why did they include that? Nothing ever happened with it.'”
Put those test readers to good use. You don’t even have to talk about showing versus telling and trying to explain that. Like we said, it gets complicated even for seasoned authors to describe, but just ask them about what they were able to visualize through your descriptions.
Stephanie: A wonderful, wonderful piece of advice.
Angela: Thank you. There’s got to be one every once in a while.
Stephanie: You have all them all the time. I do want to reiterate that: Yes, ask your beta readers, “Is there anything that needs cut? Is there anything that really stands out as really strong?” That’s going to tip you off in a big way. If something is really strong, that’s probably where you’ve done your job of showing instead of just telling.
Angela: It gives you a roadmap too. If they’re saying, “Hey, yeah this one description of this room was incredible,” you now can go back and re-read that description and kind of figure out what worked. If you can get just one, you can take that and use it in other places in what you’re writing.
Stephanie: Very, very good point.
Do you have anything else to add this week?
Angela: It’s funny, I feel like covered everything. I know you and I end up having conversations that last a long time, but I feel like this time it was pretty succinct. I would love to know if our listeners have any questions about it.
Angela: Yes we will.
Until then, keep writing.