The deeper secrets of showing not telling in fiction

One of the ‘writing rules’ hammered at beginning writers is the old adage about showing the reader stuff – not telling them.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.
A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

It’s good advice, but like all ‘writing rules’ is often misapplied by those who aren’t so familiar with the art of writing. In particular, I sometimes see efforts to ‘show’ what a character is doing in a basic narrative sense.

Actually, that isn’t always necessary. Check out Hemingway, for instance – who I regard as one of the gold standards of style – or Kerouac (another gold-standard style) and as often as not they are telling you what the character is doing in an everyday narrative sense – walking here, getting into a car there, looking for something, or whatever.

What they are not telling you – and this is the secret to it – is how the character responds to that narrative event.

That’s because the thing you have to ‘show’ (not ‘tell’) – and the reason why we have this particular rule – isn’t the moment-by-moment actions of a character. It’s the emotion – the nature of the character you’re describing, their mood, their feelings and the way they respond to what is happening to them.

To do that, to some extent, you have to tell the audience what the character is actually doing in a narrative sense. Not completely or every time – but just enough to build a picture. That acts as a framework against which the ‘showing’ of their emotional reactions, the deepening of their character, can then take place.

It also gives a framework for the reader to ‘work’ from. One of the ways to draw a reader is to make them work – to leave ‘gaps’ in the material that gets their imagination going. It’s a powerful technique, if done right; and one way of doing it is to ‘tell’ just enough so that the reader is oriented, but not so much that the ‘shown’ response of the character is spelt out.

It’s a balancing act, and one that doesn’t arrive instantly. But authors can do it, if they sit down and practise. My recommendations:

  1. Separate what a character is DOING from what they are FEELING.
  2. Figure out the minimum you can describe about the DOING so as to set a scene. It’s OK to tell.
  3. Figure out the maximum you can then show as their response to the DOING. This might be more doing, in point of fact. This is the ‘showing’ part. See the balance?
  4. Write a passage using these principles. See what I mean? Now throw it away and write another one.
  5. And another. And another.

Why do it a lot? Because this is the way to get good – and by writing stuff you KNOW will be thrown away, there’s no emotional attachment. It’s straight practise. After a while, you can turn to stuff you’ll keep.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


5 thoughts on “The deeper secrets of showing not telling in fiction

  1. The best novels often break all the rules, but as you advise, they probably didn’t start out with the great techniques leading to the current work. Learning the concepts of basic novel writing makes us more aware of how we are communicating our stories. Practice is king.

  2. I definitely want to improve on this element of writing. That is why I joined a writer’s group. I hope to get practice writing things I’m not so attached to, so I can get better for when I write things that I am. Thank you for illustrating this.

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