Faber Session 14 – Showing Vs Telling


I’m a bit behind with replying to comments and e mails because I’ve been up London today. Will catch up tomorrow I promise.

My first session back at Faber since before Christmas :) So it was latte, cake and I treated myself to a new book!

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Today’s session was about show and tell, that age old adage that puts the fear of God in most writers ;) Well, ok, perhaps that’s just me lol

Literary critics admire ‘show’ but really, how important is it?

Telling is a form of showing and bleeds over into subtext and dialogue and if you think about the greatest story ever told, The Bible, well, that’s all tell isn’t it?

No one would argue that ‘showing’ your reader that your character is sad is far more interesting than actually telling them so, but you can pull off ‘telling’ if you are confident in what you’re saying and your words are written well. Many authors use tell as part of their style. Roth, Franzen, Eugenides and Munro are all good examples.

We did 2 exercises where we had to set a scene and then use dialogue to convey an emotion our character was feeling. Here’s what I wrote:

Sue entered the room, her head down, shoulders hunched. She sighed as she picked up the remote from her sleeping husbands leg. Looking at the clock she frowned, it was 11.45pm. Outside the street was alive with party goers, the sound of laughter could just be heard above the drone of the action film that was playing to no one.

She kicked Johns leg.
“Ow! Er, what’s going on?”
“You were asleep.”
“No I wasn’t, I was just resting me eyes.”
“Yeah, like you do every night John.”
“No I don’t!”
Sue tutted. “I’m not going to argue with you, It’s New Years Eve, 2013 in less than 10 minutes.”
“So where’s the bubbly?”
“I didn’t buy any!”
John sat forward in his chair and looked up at his wife.
“You ok love? You always buy us a bottle of bubbly for New Years Eve.”
“Yeah, well perhaps I’m just fed up with it always being me?”
Sue picked up her cigarettes and lighter and stepping over Johns legs made her way back towards the kitchen doorway.
“Where you going love?”
“For a fag!”
“But it’s nearly midnight?”
Sue ignored him and slammed the kitchen door. Lighting her cigarette she mumbled “Happy fucking New Year.”

So what did I show you about Sue? What emotion was she feeling? Lets see if I was successful with my show :)

I came away feeling a little less paranoid about the whole show vs tell thingy. As writers we have enough to worry about as it is! ;)

So tell me…Do you think “modern” writers get too hung up on show and tell? Do you think it’s less important than it used to be?

42 thoughts on “Faber Session 14 – Showing Vs Telling

  1. Show, don’t tell is bandied about like its the be all of great writing. Like the unbreakable rule that a lot of famous writers break. I think it’s important, but too much telling is just overkill. I tend to skip over too much description of place, person, or feeling. Like get to the point all ready. I think you can intersperse both showing and telling in and not alter the quality of the story at all.

    I’d say Sue’s a bit fed up and worn down. Tired of her marriage or the way things are. I do like how you wrote the scene.

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  2. I am so happy to see more photos of coffee and cake. I have been bombarded with the whole show versus tell advice since I started writing and I like your spin on it. I felt Sue’s emotion very well. It nice to know I should probably relax about it and just write the story.

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  3. I suspect there’s a danger of ‘over thinking’ if we’re not careful, when we are writing, If we worry too much about whether we are showing or telling. Personally, I think it’s more important to allow the writing to flow and go its own way, naturally. There’s a danger it could become too stilted otherwise.

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  4. Show don’t tell is one of those things that really gets pushed to writers. It is a good thing because I don’t want to be ‘told’ everything, but as you say there are some great writers who do a lot of telling – I guess it’s just up to the individual and their writing style.

    I love Sue and John – she’s one pi**ed off lady! :D

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    • I use to become a gibbering mess when it was mentioned Dianne ;)

      We’re told to develop our style and voice aren’t we, and then, as Barbara said above, it can become false. I don’t think I’ve EVER read a book that’s all show, it would be hard work IMO lol

      He he he, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Pissed off was exactly what I was thinking ;)

      Xx

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  5. I love the photo of coffee and cake. I didn’t know what the book was but Julie has sorted that out for me.

    As an aspiring writer only, I can give only an unknowledgable opinion and I imagine show not tell is a rule for a reason, but one that can be broken if done well, like all writing rules. I feel as learners we do take a risk in breaking such rules though.

    I think Sue is feeling pretty taken advantage of and not cared for. Well shown :)

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  6. I definitely feel its been hampering me, but now I have strarted to realise that actually you do need some tell and like you say as long as its well written. Im going to just get on with it and check at the editing stage.

    Yes thats one cheesed off lady.

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  7. I read two books recently, one from someone starting out in writing and the other one was by a more established writer and one of the biggest differences was one showed and one told. The one that told, sometimes told more than once too, just in case. The difference was one was intriguing and mysterious and the other one was a good story, but I knew what was going to happen by the end of chapter one. Now I need to work out how to apply that to my writing without waffling on.

    I loved your depiction of Sue and John. I think the actions told us as much about her feelings as the dialogue. What flavour was the cake?

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    • That’s a good idea Rachel, and a prime example why, as writers we have to READ! :) And not just the same author all the time, because you end up with a biased view of what works :)

      Good for you honey, good luck!

      Awwww, thank you, I’m glad it worked :)

      The cake is/was Lemon, Rosemary & Olive Oil…my favourite at The London Review Bookshop Cafe :)

      Xx

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  8. I think a lot has to do with the style of the novel and the writer’s skill. One reason teachers, editors, agents push “show, don’t tell” is many writers starting out overuse passive narration, passive voice and past perfect. Active narration can show AND tell, and keep us integrated in the story.

    Older novels overuse the “tell” aspect because they moved from “tell me a story” into READING the story. Very often, in early drafts, we “hear” the story as we write it, and our narrative style is too flat. When we got back and make it more integrated and active, the prose sings.

    Readers want to experience the story, not watch it. That’s one of the things that makes reading a more intimate experience than watching TV or a movie.

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  9. As others have already said, Sue is pretty peed off! Also lonely and feeling neglected, I’d say. Longing for change in the New Year but probably won’t have the energy to clamber out of her rut to make anything happen in a big way… or am I reading too much into your showing…! ;-) I used to tie myself up in knots about showing and telling – now I just go with the flow and with what fits the story. Liked your piece of writing. I wonder if he comes out after her or goes back to sleep?

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    • Ooooo, good analysis Bel….no, you’re not reading too much in :)

      It’s not worth the stress is it ;)

      Wellllll…..I have to say, I’d like to think he’d jump out of his chair, produce a bottle of bubbly and take it to her with 2 glasses…..but, he ain’t lol :)

      Xx

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  10. I’d say Sue is annoyed, frustrated, and at the end of her patience with a stale, lacklustre relationship. I got the impression they’re older (i.e. been married 25+ years, childless or more likely empty-nesters). They don’t seem to be overly energetic or enthusiastic people. Perfectly matched though, I think.

    Thanks for dashing the dreaded “show don’t tell” rule; I do my best but I feel sometimes it makes my writing too cumbersome and it weighs down the flow. Sometimes you need the “tell” for urgency, efficiency or because you’re feeling a little lazy that day. Showing can be very overwhleming.

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  11. I think you can’t write without having a blend of showing and telling. Sometimes it is just a plain old “red door,” not “a door the color of a bloody crime scene.”

    Also, I’d say poor Sue is pissed and fed up with her slacker husband. I give the marriage two weeks.

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  12. I took my first adult Creative Writing class in 2005. I was introduced to show don’t tell. An editor, who I hired to help me in the early stages of Sons of the Edisto, said the same thing. I’ve known the phrase ever since then, but I was also a journalist. There is a lot of telling in journalism, and I think there is too much focus on Show Don’t Tell. I think you have to mix them up because if you’re in a crucial scene you might not have as much time to describe the scene.

    You did do a great job portraying your character’s emotion! :)

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  13. Vikki,
    This is a great example of the difference between show and tell. Sue’s anger and frustration can be felt in the second example. The first one is boring (sorry). Sometimes telling is appropriate. My rule of thumb is – which adds more to the story. Whenever possible I want the reader to feel the character’s emotions; to connect to them.
    Richard

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  14. Just catching up with you – is it still snowing? I had to laugh and I did – by the way my husbands’s name is Bernie – otherwise you almost got it right for New Year’s Eve 2000. Good job on that!
    And yeah – I have to get back writing but still coping with jet-lag – if we over think it we’d never write a word!

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