June 18, 2012
Let the Show Flow
Showing or Telling? Post box, Norwich, England
Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.
Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”
Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.
Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.
“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining. Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.
Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.
If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought. Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus.
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June 18th, 2012 at 10:47
Great post on showing verses telling and when not to use adverbs. Very useful!
June 18th, 2012 at 13:37
I agree 100%, I just read a book (by someone I know, so I won’t tell who) The story line was great but weighed down in detail. I found myself speed-reading through all the details, to find out what would ‘finally’ happen next!
June 18th, 2012 at 21:38
Hi Sue, thanks for stopping by my blog Vacant Pages and chooing to follow, much appreciated. Cool blog, best of luck with it.
June 19th, 2012 at 03:40
Awesome post! Word choice is absolutely critical to conveying details about any subject.
June 23rd, 2012 at 13:53
This is information that so many writers need to see. It would make readings much more engaging. Most excellent post.
June 24th, 2012 at 02:41
T’is the age old battle, showing against telling. I spend more time fixing this issue than anything else!
June 28th, 2012 at 09:34
Great tip. Thanks.
June 28th, 2012 at 20:18
Excellent advise, Sue, which I have shared on my FB author page and also on Twitter.
June 29th, 2012 at 13:15
That is an excellent rule of thumb. Thank you!!!