How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: show and tell


Welcome to Part Twelve of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at “show and tell.” For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Show And Tell

You might have crafted a killer opening to your story, or you may have decided to come back and polish it after you’ve got to the end. Either way, you know that hooking your reader at the start depends on not giving too much away at once. That continues to hold true throughout your writing.

“Show, don’t tell,” is a piece of advice frequently given to new fiction writers, and there is a lot of value in taking this on board. What it means is that, instead of summarising action and telling your reader what is happening, you demonstrate and illustrate, allowing your readers to draw their own conclusions and make the links that draw them through the story under their own steam. For example, an author could tell you that a character was a controlling and mean-spirited man. As a reader you would have to accept this, but not be able engage your critical faculties in coming to this decision.

small__2987049195In Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks writes:

“Do you drink wine?” said Azaire, holding a bottle over Stephen’s glass.

“Thank you.”

Azaire poured out an inch or two for Stephen and for his wife, before returning the bottle to its place.

From this, and further dialogue and details in the scene, the reader gains the pleasure of creating their own picture of Azaire and his character without Faulks ever having told us this in so many words.

To “show” as opposed to “telling” your story means that you need to break down much of the action in terms of scenes, similar to a screenplay.

So as you come to each chapter outline in your fiction “bible”, decide what scenes you need to “show” in order to move the plot along. As you write each scene, remember to use all your senses in describing what is going on: not just what you (and the characters) can see, but what is heard, felt, smelled and experienced.

Consider this sentence:

He went to bed late, hoping his wife would be asleep so he would not have to talk to her, but she was not.

This gives a reader the same factual information as Elizabeth Jane Howard does in the following passage from The Light Years, but lacks the visual, sensory and emotional power – as well as additional, subtle knowledge we gain about the characters – that she includes by “showing” the scene:

“He opened the bedroom door hoping that Zoe would be asleep. She wasn’t, of course. She was sitting up in bed, her bed jacket on her shoulders, doing nothing, waiting for him. He fumbled with his tie and had dropped it on top of his chest of drawers before she said, ‘You’ve been a long time.’ Her voice had the controlled quality that he had learned to dread.”

“Showing” as opposed to “telling” also helps you to avoid the type of narration that is often called “And then, and then…”. This is when an author takes the reader through the plot via a series of events, one after the other, frequently not discriminating between the interesting/important elements of the story and those which link them but have no intrinsic significance to the theme or plot. The opposite to “And then, and then…” writing is known as the “Why? Because” style. In other words, the choice of scenes, description etc, is governed by motive, character development and interaction.

You will notice, however, from the above excerpts and my paraphrases of them that the “told” version is much shorter than the “shown” scene. . And, of course, a novel or short story are not the same as a screenplay for the very reason that, unlike a script, they include description, linkage, exposition and the interior thought processes of the characters.

So is there a place in good fiction writing for “telling”? The answer, of course, is yes.

Excellent narrative combines a majority (usually) of “showing” and some strategic “telling” to link scenes, provide contrast in pace and content, and provide information quickly and which can’t always be given in another way.

When you are deciding which are the key scenes to “show” in each section of your story, make sure that they are essential to the development of your plot, relate strongly to your theme and demonstrate character development.

Linking your key scenes and providing a change of tempo and style, use “telling” segments to get across information and get through less crucial events. The idea is to find a good balance of “telling” versus “showing”, summary versus action.

One tip is not to go into detail about, or develop dialogue for, characters who are unimportant or not going to reappear in the story. For example, an interchange with a receptionist when checking into a hotel is best summarised rather than “shown”, although a few specifics, as opposed to generalities, when describing the hotel foyer or the receptionist will always give the reader an additional picture to add into the rich mix of your story.

Next week we will tackle writing authentic dialogue for fiction.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


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