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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.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here
photo credit: tarotastic via photopin cc

Branding: who needs a logo when you wear glasses?

How seriously do you take branding for your business? OK, if you’re Coca Cola or Kellogg’s it’s very, very serious and you don’t have a choice. But for those of us running rather, er, smaller enterprises, do you realise that branding is just as important?

Now, those of you who know me personally know that I don’t do fancy, but I do branding, sort of, for my meagre writing business. Here, therefore, is the “living logo” that has been working very hard for me for the last six years:

Suzan St Maur's glasses

Who do you think of when you see a woman with a mop of short, blonde hair and big black glasses? And don’t you dare say “Maxine...” I don’t do hats. LOL.

Why a pair of glasses for branding, when I’m a writer?

[Read more…]

Favourite Brexit and Trump jokes written for the long weekend

Amazingly today is yet another public holiday (May 27th 2019) amounting to at least three in the countries that I know of. ( UK: Easter, May Day and this one, plus a few as shown below. All within a few weeks of each other.)

In the UK it’s the “Spring Bank Holiday

This sort-of combines with the Christian event of Whitsun and also heralds the beginning of England’s school “half-term” holiday that includes yet another statutory Monday off, which is why schools use it in order to accept children missing four days of school when it might have been five…shame, kids. (This p*sses teachers off, too.) The actual date of the religious event of Whitsun / Pentecost is on June 9th this year but hey, never mind.

Image of Theresa May

“Brexit is (like) having a wee in the middle of the room at a house party because nobody is talking to you, and then complaining about the smell.” – Matt Abbott

“Memorial Day” in the USA This is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering and honoring people who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Hats off to all you guys and gals but I’m not sure I’d want to remember your ultimate sacrifice with a BBQ. Whatever.

“Victoria Day” in Canada
We Canadians are probably the last of the British Commonwealth “Mohicans” to celebrate the birth of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Yes, we are a little slow in updating ourselves but we are working on it. Happy birthday, our Vic.

Never mind: let’s have a few laughs…Brexit first:

[Read more…]

CV-Résumé writing for job candidates on the autism spectrum

by John Stuart

Please welcome John Stuart who is writing on behalf of CV Nation, a company that specialises in preparing job-winning CVs / résumés. John approached me and asked what HTWB readers might find useful in addition to what we already have here in terms of CV / résumé / job application and other job search writing advice.

CVs and resumes fr autistics

It’s up to you to show employers that you are the best person for the job. Not despite your autism, but because of it.

Given that Aspergers / high functioning autism is taking on such a vibrant and well-deservedly prominent role in our business world now, we need to think creatively to help people on “The Spectrum” to attain the high levels of success they deserve through the job application process. John has some useful suggestions…

Autism is not a negative: employers are realising this more and more

[Read more…]

Grand National special: writing into (and out of) the Jeremy Vine Show…

I will never be asked on to the BBC (UK) radio programme, “The Jeremy Vine Show,” again.

Grand National article on How To Write Better 2019

My kind of Grand National … where the fences are a little smaller. And so are the “horses…”

Note to non-Brits: Jeremy Vine is a perfectly nice guy who does a great radio show here in the UK. He is also one of the patrons of a local charity I support here in my home town of Milton Keynes, England, called Ride High. So he’s an extra-nice guy.

Once upon a time Jeremy’s researchers thought they’d found the perfect cannon fodder: me

This was because I had written an article on the Grand National Horse race (the 2019 version of which takes place today near Liverpool, England) about the high number of equine casualties arising during the race where horses were maimed and sometimes killed. In 2011, in particular, there was really high casualty rate and coming up to the 2012 race, I let rip. (See below for the actual article I wrote.)

Ring… ring…how to terrify an interviewee so creating some real radio entertainment!!!

[Read more…]

Valentine’s Day jokes and poems to make your day go with a, er, bang

A few years ago I curated some amusing Valentine’s Day (rude in places) content, and wrote quite a lot of new content in its honour.

Updated humour about Valentines Day on HTWBIf you should find yourself not quite in the gooey-eyed, romantic mood you should be in, say “to hell with it” and have some laughs. Here’s that content again…

Valentine’s Day rhyming couplets

Romantic first lines, not-so-romantic second lines

Love may be beautiful, love may be bliss
But I only slept with you, because I was p*ssed

I thought that I could love no other
Until, that is, I met your brother

Of loving beauty you float with grace.
If only you would hide your face. [Read more…]