Showing versus Telling

I observed a group of mothers playing with their toddlers at the park.  In general, I didn’t mind the noise or chaos of the park, but today I could feel my annoyance building as I glared at one of the mothers.  A mother I’d nicknamed “Loudmouth,” because she wouldn’t stop talking.  (Not once.  Not even when the other mothers avoided her gaze and scooted away from her.)

Loudmouth finally asked one of the other mothers a question (perhaps she’d realized that conversations are supposed to be two-sided).  “Your child is so sweet, how old is he?” she asked.

The other mother smiled shyly and responded, “fifteen months.”

“Oh!” she exclaimed.  “MY son could say the alphabet backward and forward by that age.”

I clenched my hand and thought of a string of nasty retorts, but then, Loudmouth’s son started eating sand, and I felt a little better.  Loudmouth ran off to stop her son, and the shy mother sat back, looking calmer than I felt.  Her son, a beautiful little boy with light brown curls, approached his mother.

“Up,” he cooed.

His mother picked him up, smiling down at him.

A third mother, a lady with smudged makeup, grinned.  “Now, that’s a smart boy!”

You might be wondering what this story has to do with writing, but the truth is that it showcases exactly the topic I’ve been struggling with: showing verses telling.  One mother “told” the others that her son was smart, while the other allowed her child to “show” how smart he was.  And as I thought this situation over, I realized the many problems that arise with showing verses telling.

First of all, when you tell someone something, you aren’t allowing them to think or get involved with what is happening.  They are expected to simply take your word.  This would be a terrible thing to experience as a reader, because reading is all about the process of investing yourself in a character.  When you don’t take the journey with the character, however, and are simply told about it, you don’t care as much about what happens to the character.

Second of all, when you tell someone something, it might be harder for them to believe than if they saw what you were talking about.  When you create a book about lamas that take over the world with flesh-eating spit, people might find themselves struggling to believe your plot.  But, if you are able to show everything as it happens through the strength of your writing, your readers aren’t going to doubt what’s happening, they’re not going to have to suspend their disbelief, because they’ve been right there every step of the way.  Why wouldn’t they fear the all-mighty lamas too?

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About lisamorrowbooks

Lisa Morrow is a life-long reader who treasures fantasy in all forms. Being a middle child in a large family gave her a unique perspective on the world, but few experiences compare to her time spent studying abroad in Cambridge, England and wandering throughout Europe. After her travels, Lisa settled down in Arizona to teach junior high English, and later, to spend time with her young children, husband, and cats. To some people, her life may seem quiet. But to her, every day is spent in a world colored by the imagination of children, and fantastical worlds created by her very own mind.
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One Response to Showing versus Telling

  1. aeonigni says:

    I really enjoyed this post because you approached showing and telling from a different perspective. I, also, have approached this issue from yet another perspective, that of higher education. You will find that showing versus telling is bad at any age, but it is possibly the worst thing you can do to a bunch of college-aged students.

    I can tell you the allegory of Plato’s cave, but you will never understand it unless you can experience it for yourself. I can stand up there and lecture on how to do every part of a research paper, from idea to literature review to data collection to real world application, but you will never truly understand and apply it unless you do it for yourself.

    I can talk about bargaining for more money in the interview process, resolving conflicts with coworkers, and when to stay or leave a job – but unless you are there, experiencing those things with real fear, real consequences, and uncertain outcomes, what it boils down to is that I’m just *telling* you. And your character growth depends upon you doing it yourself.

    That’s why in the writing, we want to show. We want the reader to live the experience along with the characters, making mistakes, experiencing their triumphs. We want the reader to feel as if they journey was theirs.

    As readers, we also want to live the experiences of the characters we read. The most vivid example I can think of is in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. After the children get thrown into the barn and come out in bright sunshine, they go into a place where everything is brighter, greener, sweeter, more vivid than anything they had ever experienced before. The vicarious experience of reading that as a child sparked my imagination, and I feel like in every subsequent book I have always been trying to get that back!

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