Editing Tips Part 10: Showing vs Telling

In the realm of self-editing and receiving alpha and beta reader feedback, there’s one discussion that’s almost always present: showing versus telling. An element of both developmental editing as well as copy editing, a writer’s ability to know when to implement showing a reader what’s unfolding as opposed to outright telling them can be a tricky skill to acquire. At the same time, differentiating between showing and telling can be difficult, so let’s start with some definitions and examples.

Showing is defined as the utilization of descriptions and actions to depict the story, using dialogue, interior monologue, and body language, as well as other descriptors (such as setting or characterization) to immerse the reader in their story. For example, the sentence, “A flurry of snowflakes blew through the door as Kevin opened it, and he shivered” describes what Kevin feels following his action of opening the door, as well as the setting (somewhere cold). Of course, not every element of showing needs to be present at all times, but rather, a mixture that diversifies your writing and thus the reader’s experience throughout your story.

By comparison, telling is defined as utilizing a summary of events, blunt description, or exposition to communicate the plot. For example, “Kevin opened the door and felt the cold air from the snow” summarizes what happened in concise terms.

The key difference between the two examples featuring Kevin is that, in one, the reader is simply told what Kevin experiences, whereas in the other, the use of detail paints Kevin’s world for the reader. While in both scenarios it’s understood that he’s opening a door and feels cold air, one allows for the reader to experience it in his shoes as opposed to simply being informed of those events.

So why is this differentiation important?

In the words of writer Jack M. Bickam, “Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. Let her live the story for herself as she lives real life, by experience.”

If you’re writing fiction, bringing your reader into your character’s world as completely as possible will help enhance how engrossed they are in your book, leaving them wanting more, page after page. And if you’re writing nonfiction, such as memoir, showing the reader what you experienced can help them feel as though they’re seeing the world through your eyes, walking alongside you through your life’s story and helping them understand the world the way you have. As you write and work through rounds of self-editing of your manuscript, it’s important to make sure you show far more often than you tell the reader what’s unfolding.

Additionally, when readers are told what’s happening, rather than shown, it eliminates the opportunity for them to interpret the story and its characters and their reactions for themselves, reducing the artistic impact of writing. By comparison, showing allows readers to draw their own conclusions about your characters and make their own predictions about what may happen as the story unfolds, allowing them to have a more profound connection with your book.

Furthermore, showing enables you to convey a deeper meaning to your reader, both in regard to the moral or message of your text as well as the characters within. For example, if you tell your reader that a character is sad, they may not be able to imagine what that means to your character. Does your character cry when they’re sad? Do they take a long, hot shower while listening to a certain kind of music? Do they take a long nap, or do they repress their feelings until they explode? If, instead, you show your reader how feelings of sadness manifest in your character’s life, not only will your character’s development be stronger, but your reader may also find ways in which they can see themselves in your story.

As the Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Only you can describe the way the light glistens in your character’s world…and that’s because your character’s world is, in part, your world. After all, if you’re writing fiction, you created it; if you’re writing memoir, you lived it. Show your reader how you experience the world, rather than simply what you’ve seen.

Navigating the fine line between showing and telling can be tricky, and if it’s something you’re struggling with, know that you aren’t alone in that. Throughout the many drafts of a manuscript, many writers begin with an abundance of telling in order to simply get the story on paper, and then, later, work in additional details and transition to more showing as they get to know their characters and refine their story—it’s a natural part of the self-editing and developmental editing process. Receiving feedback from alpha and beta readers along the way will also provide some clues about where you may need to do more showing, though you will need to understand what their feedback phrases mean (this guide can help).

Ultimately, it can be challenging to take the world or story from your mind and transcribe it to paper in as much vivid color as you see it, but it can be done. All you need is a little patience and determination.

Josha Publishing, LLC is a woman-founded, woman-owned, and woman-run company that is passionate about booksstories, and the power of words to change lives. Learn more about us here and remember to sign up for our newsletter to find out about new content, new books, and submissions update.

Editing Tips Part 10:
Showing vs Telling

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