Showing and Telling

I had a multi-day conversation with two of my writing friends (Chris Fontes, owner of, and töff, founder of the Fresno Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers); yes, the conversation spanned days.  In fact, it is still going.  It was interesting to me because we touched on summarizing, info dumping, description, dialogue, inner dialogue, narration, action, mannerisms, and sentence structure – all in trying to define ‘showing versus telling.’

What I found was that we were all intelligent people, and we had three completely different ideas about telling.  Of course, I liked my version best, but that isn’t to say that I can’t learn from their views.  The great part about it was that we could all defend our viewpoints very well.

My version had one rule with four subparts.  Basically I believe one should avoid generalizations where possible including:

  • Never use an adverb that generalizes a behavior
    1. He clumsily walked
    2. His joking mannerism
  • Use caution with adjectives that introduce personal or cultural biases and preferences
    1. He had a kind face
    2. Her beautiful hair…
  • Never tell the readers what someone is feeling
    1. My anger boiled
    2. Her shame…
  • Action needs to be shown through specific events and dialogue
    1. They took their positions
    2. The truck plowed through cars…

Chris tried (and is still trying) to boil down his view to one rule, but he admits that he hasn’t worked out everything yet:

  • If you have a sentence with only a linking verb, and you are not summarizing, it is telling

Töff used a visual technique to define his viewpoint.  I am paraphrasing, but it goes something like this:

  • Imagine a stage.  What can the audience see?  Not thoughts.  Not inner feelings.  Don’t tell those.  They see action, description, facial expressions, and behaviors and they can hear dialogue.  That is what you can show the reader.

Initially, my viewpoint really worked well with töff’s, but not always.  Mine did not match up well against Chris’.  However, if I implemented my version of showing with Chris’, then we had something that read well.  This is because Chris’ rule has much more to do with how the reader is being told/shown the story while töff and my rules have more to do with what the reader is being told/shown.

The more I combine the rules, the more I liked it.  With the combination of all three, the characters became dynamic, the settings vivid, and the characters and setting connected.

While I still don’t always agree with Chris’ show/tell rule, or töff’s for that matter, I do see where all the rules in unison can be used to make well crafted scenes and stories.

I would love to hear other viewpoints or clarifications on the topic.

About R. Garrett Wilson

I am a member of the Stanislaus World Builders writing group and have participated in the FSFW writing group. I have written one drama that was based on the book of Mark and performed at my church in 2007. My story, Journeyer, is published in Analog Magazine and a novelette, The Bakrra Encounter, in the FSFW 2010 anthology, I Dreamed a Crooked Dream. I also took part in the community novel project, Stanislaus Reads and Writes, and have a chapter in their novel, Ashes in a Teardrop. Beyond writing, I enjoy road trips, photography, woodworking, watching tennis and cycling, and reading.
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3 Responses to Showing and Telling

  1. töff says:

    > The great part about it was that we could all defend our viewpoints very well.

    Chris managed to flummox me this morning with what we’re calling “the metal box problem.” I’m bashing my brain against it, but so far I’m getting back only bits of gray pulp.

  2. Pingback: Show vs Tell! Woo hoo! « C. Michael Fontes

  3. Pingback: Repeated Writing Errors - writing - 'ly' adverbs Alliteration C. Michael Fontes Characters Chris FSFW Junk Words P. D. Wright Paula Repeated words Sentence Structure Showing versus Telling Summarizing Teaching Telling That writing Writing Errors - R. Garr

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