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Writing instructors and editors often dole out the suggestion that writers should show rather than telling, but it’s really pretty abstract (telling!) advice. I’ll offer an example of telling vs. showing:

Wilfred and Bea argued vehemently. She insisted that he had pilfered her breakfast. Exasperated, he accused her of the same.

and:

“Bea, why in Heaven’s name are you eating my oatmeal?” Wilfred asked.

“What ever do you mean? I cooked this bowl of oatmeal not five minutes ago and walked out to check on Ma while it cooled.”

“No, I cooked the oatmeal. You know good and well I have a bowl of peaches ‘n cream oatmeal every morning, and I resent your stealing my breakfast.” His moustache twitched as he said it, and his glasses flashed in the harsh fluorescent light.

“I’ll say it once more. I opened the packet of oatmeal. I poured milk in the oatmeal. I put the oatmeal in the microwave. And I pushed the buttons to cook it.” Bea rapped her knuckles on the table more forcefully with each pronouncement. “The breakfast is mine!”

His moustache twitched again, and a vein pulsed on his forehead. He looked at the oatmeal and at Bea, then back at the oatmeal. It was probably too cool by now anyway. “Fine,” he said, and he shuffled to the pantry for a fresh packet. He always had peaches ‘n cream on hand. “But keep your damn hands off my oatmeal this time. I’ll use the red bowl.”

I won’t pretend that this is award-winning writing, but what I’m trying to demonstrate is that instead of using bland phrasing and adverbs and adjectives to tell a little story, I can make it a lot more interesting, memorable, and even (hopefully) a little funny by dramatizing it. I here show a scene rather than just telling you vaguely what happened.

Of course, there are less extreme examples too. There’s certainly no need to make a big dramatic fuss over every little sentence you write. Take a sentence like this one:

He ran home swiftly.

It surely conveys the important information, but it’s neither memorable nor especially interesting. It doesn’t really leave much of a picture in your brain, and if you’re like me, writing that makes pictures in your brain makes a bigger impression than writing that doesn’t. So we might rewrite the sentence as follows:

He ran home through a blur of trees, his hair trailing him like the tail of a comet.

Again, I’m not exactly polishing a Pulitzer over here, so my example may not be the best (maybe it’s too figurative, and it’s definitely a little silly), but perhaps it demonstrates the point that sometimes you can replace a tired adverb or adjective with a more striking descriptive phrase.

As with most anything, you can certainly have too much of a good thing here. Writing that doesn’t relax with simple, declarative sentences from time to time can become overwrought and exhausting to read. But if you find yourself using lots of adverbs and adjectives — telling by using abstractions and labels rather than by showing actions and traits — you might try to mix it up a little and see if you like the results.

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  1. Description is very important. That being said less is always more. The greatest challenge a writer faces is being detailed, descriptive, enchanting and innovative in as few words as possible. In relation to your last example, “He ran home swiftly,” which consists of 4 words and 5 syllables I would more than likely write it similar to this, “Heart racing, breathe ragged he made his way through backyards and winding alleys to arrive at home promptly.”

    I would say description my supersede the importance of arc development, although both are absolutely necessary in a story. Before I rant anymore I’ll just say I enjoyed the post and agree with the content.

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  2. Thank you for the insight. I am new at writing but even newer at writing and putting on display. I am going to try to keep this in mind as I grow on my style.

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  3. I’ve always been challenged by balancing showing and telling, since you really need both to tell a story. I just did an interview with Dawn Lairamore, whose second book just came out last month. She is very good at showing, and yet seems to balance showing with keeping the action going (She writes adventure stories for middle grade.) I asked her if she has any editing secrets to balance description and action. You can see the interview (and my recipe for fairy cakes, a chocolate cake made in the microwave!) here: http://kitchentangents.com/2011/11/01/interview-with-middle-grade-author-dawn-lairamore-and-%E2%80%9Cchocolate-fairy-cakes%E2%80%9D-an-ivy-inspired-recipe/

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  4. This is good advice (to go easy on adjectives and adverbs) but where I am now (in Hong Kong), you’d be surprised just how resistant people [here in Hong Kong] can be about this particular piece of advice. Indeed, I stopped counting the number of times I’ve told people just to MILDLY ease up on adjectives and adverbs. But to see a string of five or six adjectives/adverbs in place of an alternative verb on a daily basis makes for a pretty effective way of developing heartburn.

    This is what we get: The work was firmly designed to deliberately show learning and culture.

    When it could have been: The work was to flaunt learning and culture.

    Just my twopence worth.

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    1. The cross-cultural angle here is very interesting to me. I’m pretty hobbled because I’m fluent only in English, but I wonder how writing tips differ across many languages and cultures. Thanks for bringing this up!

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  5. Great advice here. All the trailing comments have been helpful too. As a novelist, I think I’ve had a harder struggle with WHEN to tell rather than show, especially since commercial-length fiction will not allow for showing every single thing with great descriptions.

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  6. I still wonder is it good (description) for short stories? Because you should only write the things that contribute to the story. Often these description don’t contribute much to the original story rather than telling what the environment or situation is like.

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    1. I think this varies depending on style. Shorter isn’t necessarily better, unless your style dictates that you keep things pretty spare and short. Things that are utterly tangential probably don’t belong in fiction (or most writing), but sometimes it’s nice to stretch your legs and go on a little diversion, provided it adds some flavor or thematic oomph to the story. I’m one for maximalism, so I like things that might seem to be tangents, though certainly mine’s not the only legitimate point of view. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. It seems so basic, so ‘of course’ … no big aha’s … just common sense. But sticking with the principle of showing not telling we you are caught up on the writing wave, or some acceptable balance between the two, is tougher than it appears.

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  8. I guess it’s already covered by the other comments. A balancing act. For example, if your breakfast scene reveals something that’s related to the story, then it needs to go into detail. If it doesn’t add anything to the story whatsoever, then sum it up as an argument and move on. It annoys me when I read many scenes that are drawn out yet doesn’t add to the story except word count…

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    1. These are very tricky waters to navigate, I think. Sometimes it’s nice just to read good prose, even if it’s a little tangential. Well, I think so, at least. I may be more tolerant than others of discursive fiction. You have to write darned nice prose to make it work and not seem like you’re just being self-indulgent, though, and most of us aren’t good enough for that. So I take your point but would like to reserve an asterisk for those writers who can pull off really great meandering prose. Really great writing is about how you tell the story and not just what the story says.

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  9. I was just thinking about this the other day, in relation to speculation fiction (fantasy/sci-fi etc.) where an info dump needs to be made somewhere for the story to make sense. I recently started reading two books who both have a big explanatory passage right at the beginning – ‘Deep Secret’ by Diana Wynne Jones, and ‘Sunshine’ by Robin McKinley – and both authors do it well. It doesn’t pull you out of the story at all. But I think it’s pretty difficult to do this, or to know when it’s allowable to do this and when you should do more showing.

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  10. Wow! Now I get it. Very clear explanation. I think I’ve always used Telling to sort of skip ahead, like a quick fast-forward button in the story. Maybe the reader actually wants to see those scenes!

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  11. About 10 years ago, i started a series of books. The first few I throughly enjoyed, though they were very descriptive. Unfortunately, I believe it was the 4th book, whereby I was drudging through it. The reason was the showing was far too exagerated and the telling was few and far between. That author has continued on with the series but they lost me as a reader.

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