This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Finding “Telling” and Fixing It
How to Show Instead of Tell
Here are some tips for identifying when a novelist “tells” instead of “shows” and how to fix it.
Many times, writers hear the injunction, “Show, don’t tell.” But how to know when you’re “telling” instead of showing, and what do you do about it?
“Telling” is always difficult for writers to discover in their own writing, so a writer shouldn’t be discouraged if he can’t see it during revisions.
There are many online articles to explain “showing” versus “telling,” including this one which lists examples of “showing” and “telling.”
Be aware that there are some instances where “telling” is needed rather than showing.
However, in many cases, the “telling” is unnecessary and should be “shown” instead.
Critique partners are good resources for pointing out “telling” in a manuscript. An objective outside reader will usually be able to find “telling” with more ease than the author.
Also, an author who critiques other manuscripts will see the “telling” in other writers’ works, and the more instances of “telling” a writer sees, the better he can find it in his own writing.
The best way to have this kind of excessive exposure to “telling” is when the writer does a lot of critiquing of other writers—whether critique partners or in a large online critique group. If you don’t have a critique group, this page lists critiquing resources, including links.
Identify the Pertinent Information In the Segment of “Telling”
Just because a sentence or paragraph is “telling” does not mean the information isn’t important. It could be that the information just needs to be “shown,” or perhaps the information is not important to the current action of the scene.
Look at your segment of “telling” and distill it into the information that the reader absolutely needs to know in order to understand the book. Ask yourself if the reader would be completely confused in the segment of telling was removed, or if the reader could still understand the story well enough.
If the reader could still understand the story, cut the segment of “telling.”
If the segment has information the reader needs in order not to be confused, then figure out if the current scene needs the information, or if it could be more emotionally impactful being revealed elsewhere in the novel.
Determine the Best Scene For the Information
Often, the information in the segment of “telling” is more pertinent to a later scene.
Withholding the information can create mystery for the reader, compelling him to continue to reading to find out what’s going on. So while the writer might think he needs to lay all the information out, often withholding information generates more reader interest.
Figure out which scene absolutely needs the information in order for the reader to understand the story. Then determine where in that scene the information can be inserted.
Insert the Information In an Unusual Way
The writer has two options—to “tell” the information in the new scene, or to insert the information in a clever, more unique way.
“Telling” in the form of a short phrase or sentence is often good to not hinder the flow of dialogue or action. However, anything longer than a phrase or sentence will often stall the reading flow.
Another option is to convey the information in dialogue.
A writer can also “show” the information with a character’s actions. For example, to show a fear of heights, rather than “telling” the reader in an earlier scene, show the character frozen on top of the Ferris Wheel.
Ultimately, the writer should figure out a way that seems right for the scene and the story, and insert the information.