In last week’s post, I mentioned that I would spend some time talking about how to Show instead of Tell. I often mention that I’m going to do articles in the future, but this particular one received an unprecedented number of requests, so I decided to run with it.
Just like last week, where I used McDonalds as an example, we’re going to this week talking about Jane running.
This is the quintessence of telling instead of showing. By saying “Jane ran,” I’m just using a very basic statement of fact. There is a character named Jane, and she ran. Everyone knows what happens here, and if all I’m trying to convey is the fact that Jane ran, I have successfully done that.
It’s also boring. The reader is aware of the fact that Jane ran, but there’s no weight behind it, no action, no drama. That’s not to say you should never use a sentence like that, but you should only use it if the fact of Jane’s running is completely irrelevant to the story.
Jane ran as fast as she could.
This is what a lot of newer writers think qualify as showing instead of telling, and I’ll freely admit I was guilty of doing this. The sentence does have more action now – she’s not just running, she’s pushing her body to its limits. The sentence does give us more information, and it implies the running is important, because you don’t run as fast as you’re capable of unless you need to.
It’s still just factual, however. I’m telling you how Jane ran, but it doesn’t convey any more punch than “Jane ran.” It’s added detail, but adding detail doesn’t change things from showing to telling. Encyclopedias are full of details, but they only tell you information.
Jane ran, her heart pounding in her chest with every step.
You could make an argument here that this just contained more information, same as the above example, but there are details here that go beyond it. Jan running is still just being told. You now know that fact. The fact that her heart is pounding shows something, however. More detail would be needed to clarify what she was feeling – was she running as fast as she can? Was her heart pounding in fear? Does Jane have a heart condition?
That right there is why Telling can still be useful at sometimes. Telling is unambiguous. It conveys facts. Without proper context, showing can be confusing. Lets try adding some more context.
Jane ran, the forest’s trees blurring in the edge of her vision, her heart pounding in her chest. The orcs were right on her heels.
Okay, now we know a bit more without being told. The details about the landscape have now made it clear that Jane is running quickly, and that provides context for why her heart is pounding. The addition of the orcs behind her implies that fear might be a factor in her heart rate. It’s better than the above – it gives us more context, more details.
That still lacks something, however. The moment lacks punch, lacks force. There’s no impact. Jane is running fast from orcs, but why do we care? I mean, from the details we have have above, the Orcs could be chasing her as part of a game of tag, or it could be some kind of Jane vs. orcs footrace. There’s no weight behind it. That’s why it’s often better to go for…
Jane’s heart pounded in her chest as the trees blurred in the edge of her vision. Her lungs burned with every breath, and tears began to sting the edge of her eyes. She clenched her jaw and fists. The sound of the orc’s footfalls drowned out her own, and she could practically feel their hot, foul breath on the back of her neck.
And there we have it. This is pretty much pure showing. Note that I never once said Jane was running, nor did I say the orcs were close behind her. The details do that for me. The blurring trees were enough to let the reader know she was moving fast, and the burning lungs and pounding heart implied she was running. It was cinched by the orc’s footfalls drowning out her own. The fact that their breath is ‘foul’ implies it that these Orcs are antagonistic, and the tears in Jane’s eyes imply she is afraid, or at least is reaching her limit – but the clenched jaw and fists make it clear Jane isn’t giving up yet.
You see how much better this is than “Jane ran.” or even “Jane ran from the orcs.”? The scene is now brighter, more vibrant. You feel Jane running, you feel the Orcs right behind her. It’s not a perfect scene – I could tinker with the wording to make it better, I could add more details to make the scene more alive, and I could add some of Jane’s internal monologue to make her motives more clear. I feel it illustrates the point though.
All writing, to a degree, is telling. You show instead of tell by giving the reader the details that actually form the picture.
And if you want to know – Jane manages to lead the orcs into an ambush. It was a near call, but everything went according to plan. I’d show you that, but at that point, I’d just be writing a story.
What are some of your favorite examples of showing instead of telling? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want to read a story, you can pick up Rumors free here.