Tuesday, August 16, 2016

9 The Four Misconceptions of "Show Don't Tell" that Can KILL Your Book

Immersing readers into our stories is one of the things we all struggle with as writers. The plot and characters can all be right there in our heads, the premise can be fantastic, the setting phenomenal, and we can still fall down. Why? Because the art of writing isn't in the sentences. It’s in how we choose to take the reader by the hand and plunge with them into our story world. Usually, this is done by “showing.” But in my opinion, the “show don’t tell” cliche is one of the most frustrating pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard bandied about. It’s not only too often misunderstood, but also deeply misleading. Really, it's all about the lens.

Misconception #1: Never “tell”

Voice is the holy grail of writing. Readers (and agents and editors) will follow a great voice anywhere. But how do you have “voice” if you don’t “tell”?

Let’s take a look at a the beginning of a much-loved bestseller from Julie Murphy. It’s delightful precisely because the quality of the telling surprises and entertains. The reader falls in love with the insights the narrator offers up. That’s voice.

All the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song. Including my friendship with Ellen Dryver.

The song that sealed the deal was “Dumb Blonde” from her 1967 debut album,
Hello, I’m Dolly. During the summer before first grade, my aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual devotion to Dolly. While they sipped sweet tea in the dining room, Ellen and I would sit on the couch watching cartoons, unsure of what to make of each other. But then one afternoon that song came on over Mrs. Dryver’s stereo. Ellen tapped her foot as I hummed along, and before Dolly had even hit the chorus, we were spinning in circles and singing at the top of our lungs. Thankfully, our love for each other and Dolly ended up running deeper than one song.

I wait for Ellen in front of her boyfriend’s Jeep as the sun pushes my feet further into the hot blacktop of the school parking lot. Trying not to cringe, I watch as she skips through the exit, weaving in and out of after-school traffic.

El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. She’s always been at home in her own skin.

I can’t see Tim, her boyfriend, but I have no doubt that he’s a few steps behind her with his nose in his cell phone as he catches up on all the games he’s missed during school.

The first thing I ever noticed about Tim was that he was at least three inches shorter than El, but she never gave a shit. When I mentioned their vertical differential, she smiled, the blush in her cheeks spreading to her neck, and said, “It’s kinda cute, isn’t it?”

Murphy, Julie (2015-09-15). Dumplin' (pp. 1-2). HarperCollins. 

Misconception #2: “Showing” is always better

Julie could have done the obvious thing. I can tweak this to "show" more of the information:

I wait for Ellen in front of her boyfriend’s Jeep. The sun swelters, melting the blacktop of the school parking lot until my feet sink in. Trying not to cringe, I watch as Ellen skips through the exit, weaving in and out of after-school traffic.

El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. In the midst of the crowd she stops and turns, shrugging and smiling as kids eddy around her until the tide washes Tim, her boyfriend, up to where she waits. As usual, he’s got his nose in his cell phone, probably catching up on all the games he’s missed during school. El taps him on the arm. He looks up three inches to meet her eyes and grins at her before sliding his arm around her, the gesture a little off because of their vertical differential. He says something, and she grins back, the blush in her cheeks spreading to her neck.

There’s nothing wrong with this “showing” version, but apart from the Julie pieces that I’ve reused, there’s nothing “right” about it either. Nothing that makes it very unique and special. We don't know what it's about, and we have no hook to keep us reading. And without that, what’s the point?

If a reader/agent/editor can find the same writing/ideas in other books, they don’t need this book.

Misconception #3: “Telling in dialogue isn’t telling

Writing convoluted dialogue is another way we too often twist ourselves into knots to avoid using narrative to “tell” a story.

Julie Murphy could have put some of the important bits of this opening into dialogue. I've rewritten it that way here:

“You know, all the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song,” I say as Ellen Dryer’s boyfriend Tim turns the ignition of his jeep and Dolly’s “Dumb Blonde” blares from the stereo speakers.

The school parking lot still bustles with after-school traffic, and the stench of melting asphalt fills the car before El slams the door. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Remember the first day we heard this one? We were siting in my mother’s living room and . . . ”

Well, you get the idea. Bleh. Also—and here’s the most important point—this is still telling. Why? Because there’s no reason for the characters to be discussing this. The only purpose of the dialogue is to convey information to the reader, and that’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for telling.

Misconception #4: “Telling” is something that happens within a scene

Choosing what to show is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle—especially when it comes to where to start a story. Starting in the wrong place, with the wrong scene or situation, forces us to tell where the right scene would put us into action that enables us to let the reader experience the important information along with the character to create an immersive read.

Information selection is the key thing, here. My first book editor, the brilliant Annette Pollert, gave me a piece of advice that I come back to over and over again as I write:

"Why does the reader need to know this, and why does she need to know it now?”

The most obvious answer, and the most valid one, is that the reader needs the information in order to understand the story. As for timing? Stories are structures. They fall apart without a solid foundation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a few hidden passages and unexpected corridors along the way.

Great storytellers give readers enough information to ground them in the certainty that they understand what is happening presently, while simultaneously teasing the reader with hooks, hints of interesting information yet to be discovered about why it’s happening. Hooks can be glimpses of backstory, insights into past events or motives the reader doesn’t yet know, or questions that pique curiosity about coming events that will arise because of what is happening now. Anything that makes us curious about what, why, who, how, or even when (as in when something aniticipated is going to happen) will create a sense of urgency. Done well, this feels seamless and almost magical to the reader, and she feel as though she must keep turning pages.

That’s one of the many things that Julie Murphy does really well in the opening of Dumplin'. As a reader, I want to know why Willowdean, the narrator, isn’t comfortable in her own skin the way her best friend is, and why El is one of the best things in her life. I get a sense of vulnerability from the way that Julie reveals the accidental nature of the way the two friends bonded, a wistfulness in Will that makes me want to know more about her long before I get to the explanation of what she wants:

But I want what they have. I want a person to kiss hello.

Sometimes, “Telling” is the Better Part of Valor

That whole grounding the reader thing? The size of the foundation depends on the size, genre, anticipated pace, and audience of your story. If you're writing literary fiction, more backstory is needed. If your story world is exactly like the world in which the reader lives, there’s probably not a lot of foundation needed. But if you have an enormous fantasy world, a hidden world (real or imagined) without our own, or a character who may not be exactly what readers expect (and ideally, all major characters should be truly unique), then showing the reader the foundation and backstory a stone at a time may simply take too long. After all, the reader needs that information, but foundation is only there to help her understand the conflict that’s the real heart of the scene and book.

Revealing foundation information in dialogue or showing it in action is often too convoluted and derails the forward momentum of the story. There are times when you just have to be brave and “tell” it like it is. You can do that successfully. Remember the song from Mary Poppins? Well, in our case, it’s a spoonful of character that makes the information go down in a most delightful way.

My personal theory is that readers buy books for premise, but they fall in love or hate with major characters. Give them enough unique character insight along with a piece of information, and the “telling” becomes “voice” instead.

Julie Murphy could have shown Will trying on a pair of pants or looking in the mirror to show us that she is fat. Instead, she gives us El and Millie as a mirror, letting us see that Will falls somewhere in between. And then she straight up tells us:

The word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. It’s like how I notice some girls have big boobs or shiny hair or knobby knees. Those things are okay to say. But the word fat, the one that best describes me, makes lips frown and cheeks lose their color. But that’s me. I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it. So I always figure why not get it out of the way?

Because Julie gives us this passage, we know that Will isn't going to be your stereotypical fat girl who secretly hates herself for being fat. She's aware that other people judge her for it, sure, but she doesn't see it their way. And that puts her in conflict with the world--and that's a story.

Like Julie said: 

Sometimes, you just have to get things out of the way. As with anything else, there's good telling and there's bad telling. Good telling is surprising/fresh/insightful both in information and in the way it's conveyed.

Like most writers, figuring out what to show and giving myself the courage to rock the telling are the things I struggle with the most. It's where I fall down most often, but that's the lifelong quest of any writer.

Doing justice to the telling is what makes us plunge so deep within the skin of our characters that it hurts. And it's the biggest risk, because when we're that deep, we're exposed. We're vulnerable. Readers can like us or hate us, and that's a scary, scary, scary place to go. Telling that way can mean throwing out entire manuscripts if they don't work. But when the risk pays off, like it did with Dumplin', it pays off big.

What about you? Thoughts on telling versus showing? As a reader? As a writer?



  1. Thanks for this post. I find nothing wrong AT ALL with the original. So, either I can't tell showing from telling (very possible) or I just use telling in my own way and call it "good." who knows, but appreciate your insights. As always, Martina!

  2. That's the biggest misconception--that there is anything wrong with Julie's piece. There isn't. Everything is infused with the narrator's POV and shows her state of mind. Sorry if I didn't make that clear enough! And as I remember your writing, you know everything about "good"!

  3. Thank you so much for this post and the fabulous example from Dumplin'. I have a telling paragraph in the opening of one of my books, and I got dinged by a few judges in contests who had "show don't tell" so ingrained. But I stuck it out with my opening, because I think it sets the stage. And it really helps to see Julie Murphy's fabulously written opening to confirm that choice.

    1. It comes down to knowing the rules to break the rules, but fiction is always subjective. One thing to bear in mind is that most often, the successful "telling" openings contain emotion that allow the character to connect. The reader needs something to draw them into the book and make them curious, and often the lack of that is what judges refer to in the "show don't tell" comments. Bottom line, I think "show don't tell" comes in many different flavors. : ) Hang in there!

  4. One good way to practice this, (my writing professor in college had us do this, super helpful) is take one of your favorite movies scenes where the camera moves a lot and try writing it. It helps sharpen this skill super well and is fun.

    1. GREAT suggestion!!!! Do you have any of those exercises hanging around? I'd love to have you do a guest post with me about that?!

  5. This is a really helpful post; thanks!

  6. These tips will not just help you write fiction but also better dialogue and better ways to tell your story. Most writers get overly crafty and tell readers what they don't need to know. Practice, practice, practice with short stories and blogs.

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