Is it possible you’re showing when you should be telling?

Last night I shared a couple beers and an awesome burger (best burgers in town, can I get an Amen?) at a local watering hole in Mobile, Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, with a fellow emerging writer.  Above the sound of a local music duo, we talked about the ol’ show vs. tell rule. My friend was so sick of hearing of this rule and thought it was about time it should be thrown out. I’m not there yet, but I do see where she’s coming from. Sometimes it is better to tell than show, no doubt. And new writers might have a hard time distinguishing when that time is.

The operative word there, though, is sometimes. I think most helpful articles about this do mention that there are times to tell, but point out that with new writers the big mistake is telling when they should show. I think this is true. Most often when you’re telling it doesn’t help your story so it is best to change it into a richer experience for the reader.

But when should you tell? I’m not sure I’m there yet as a writer and so am trying to eliminate instances of telling whenever I find them. However, I think one comfortable caveat is when you’re transitioning your character from one place to another. A simple statement that they got into the car or carriage is all that’s needed. If nothing happens along the way that helps further your plot, then there’s no need to convert that one sentence of showing to a blow-by-blow of everything that person saw and did. Does this sound obvious? Well, I read a published mystery a couple of years ago where the author had obviously had this rule pounded into their head because we were treated multiple times with scenes just like this (actually the character was walking to work). Because it was a murder mystery, I kept thinking that something was going to happen during those scenes, and nothing did! It was extremely annoying.

One of my favorite links to pass on to folks when critiquing is Shirley Jump’s article Show Not Tell: What the Heck is that Anyway? Her last two points at the bottom I think sum this up well:

  • Don’t pad it too much. Don’t overwhelm the reader with description either. You’re not writing a travelogue, you’re writing a story. Add enough details to give them a picture, then move on to the meat of your story. If you have several paragraphs in a row of description, chances are you’ve gone overboard. Try to work the description in with the dialogue and action instead so you can maintain your pacing and reader interest.
  • Don’t be afraid of telling sometimes, too. A mix of both showing and telling is a good idea. You don’t have to show every single thing in your book. Sometimes, a quick telling helps get through a slow part or provides a quick recap. The goal is to make the MAJORITY of your writing vivid and strong (i.e., showing) and keep the telling to a minimum.

That mystery book was padded with scenes that served no purpose plot or character-wise, IMO, and only served to create false suspense.

So what do you think? When is it okay to tell? Do you think this rule should die a horrible and miserable death?

Writing Newbie Tip: Adverbs can also indicate you’re telling

writing

Photo by Rae Grimm (bloodylery)

I’m a relatively new writer learning the craft and am painfully aware I have a long way to go. I learn new things every day. This post today is for new writers like me, because often I think more experienced writers forget what it’s like when you’re first learning. They already know so many tools and methods that a lot of it is now instinctual and so might not think to state things that are obvious to them.

One thing I’ve noticed as I write, edit and critique other work is that I can learn something conceptually, but until it clicks I haven’t really learned it. Case in point is the writer’s bugaboo: adverbs.

We’ve all read and heard that you should avoid adverbs when possible. This won’t be the usual admonition to scrutinize each one to make sure you’re not using a weak verb. I think that concept is easily grasped once a newbie reads about it.

Sometimes, though you’ll run across a little more in-depth tip that tells you adverbs may also indicate you’re telling. Okay, so I read that handy tip but it didn’t quite sink in as something I really understood until I finally saw a piece in my own writing earlier this summer that made me sit up and go “oh, dummy!” The passage was when my hero was picking the lock on a desk drawer. I had him pull out his nice leather pouch of picks (starting to show, good) but then I stopped the showing short by concluding that sentence with ‘and he went expertly to work’ — When I came across that I thought of how I could show that he was an expert and not just tell, so I did some quick research online and then rewrote it to show him picking out a certain tool and then closing his eyes as he listened to the tumblers, etc. I never said he was an expert, but, hopefully, I showed that he was by how he did the job.

BEFORE (From the second draft):

Taking out his set of lock picks enclosed in a soft leather pouch, he went expertly to work. Soon the lock and drawer opened with a satisfying click and rasp of wood against wood. A leather-bound journal was the sole occupant. Surely this would have the evidence he sought.

AFTER (From the third draft):

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