This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on May 7, 2019. I loved it so much, I thought I would share it with you here.
As an author and passionate lover of writing and storytelling, I often spend time studying my craft. Most often this comes in the form of reading articles and listening to podcasts/video lessons.
About a month ago, I listened to an excellent podcast on the skill of showing and not telling and during the lesson, it struck me how the information contained in this lesson pertained not just to writers but also to readers. It is not the first time I had such thoughts. I have taught both reading and writing, and these two areas of study overlap in many points.
Therefore, today, I am going to talk about the skill of showing and not telling and how it appears in writing and what it can do for a reader.
Warning: This is not a short post because…
I will be using examples from my own writing as illustrations since they will give you a better idea of how I attempt to use the skill of showing and not telling in my work. These examples will come from stories which are currently posting on my blog so that you can read the examples in context if you so wish.
However, both of these stories are ending — one, His Dearest Friend, just concluded today and the other, Loving Lydia, will conclude on May 30, so do not wait too long to read them because I will have to take them down for publication very soon.
Please note: I am not using these illustrations because I think I have it “all figured out.” There is always…ALWAYS…room for a writer to hone his or her skill. I am just hoping that by sharing these examples it will give us all something to consider as we improve our skills.
Before we dive into my examples, it would probably be good to explain what I mean by showing and not telling.
According to Wikipedia,
Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.
If an author can master the use of this skill, it will improve the reading experience for the reader. Characters will become alive. Scenes will play out as if you are there. The character’s emotions and well-being will become a part of the reader and will compel her to keep reading because she desires the resolution as much as the character does.
Because of these things, show, don’t tell is, in this author’s opinion, a fundamental skill, and it demonstrates not only a love and respect for the craft of writing but also for the reader because you are striving to give that reader the best possible reading experience.
As a reader, you can enhance your own enjoyment of a story if you can extrapolate or infer the nuances that such a technique gives to a story.
So are you ready to do some guided extrapolating and inferring? I hope so since we are going to begin the examples and explanation portion of this post.
We will start with two excerpts from His Darling Friend that should give us insights into who the characters are about whom we are reading. This is especially important in a story such as this one since this story is an original sweet Regency romance with deliberate nods to Jane Austen’s Emma but does not build off of any plot or character found in Jane Austen’s work. The characters in this story start out as strangers to us, and we have to get to know them. (Unless you read His Beautiful Bea, then you would have already met Roger.)
Roger Shelton slumped down on the cream-coloured settee in the far corner of the Abernathy’s drawing room next to a pretty young lady whom he knew would not bat her lashes at him or smile coyly as all the other eager young women at this house party seemed wont to do. Not that he blamed them, of course. He would make a fine catch if he were ready to be caught.
This, the opening paragraph of His Darling Friend, should reveal something to you about the hero of the story through his actions and thoughts.
- He slumps. He does not sit. This should clue us in to the fact that Roger Shelton eases his way through life. He’s a devil-may-care sort of fellow.
- He is obviously handsome, rich, or both if the ladies at this house party are attempting to flirt with him.
- He does not have a self-esteem issue. He sees himself as a “fine catch,” and he’s not the sort to deny it.
This next example is also from the first chapter of His Darling Friend.
He had known she would not believe him. Her father was too kind to tease in such a fashion, and he was in no rush to see his darling daughter given away to anyone.
“Your father did give me that package for you. That is the truth. As is the fact that my mother suggested I take a good turn through the ladies of the room looking for more than pleasant curves and a willing smile.”
“You are dreadful!”
Roger placed a hand on his heart. “I promise you she said that very thing. Mother is not known for her delicacy when chiding me.” In that way, Victoria was a lot like his mother. “There was also something in the diatribe about grandchildren before she turned her toes up.” He shot a devilish grin at his friend.
“Do not say it,” Victoria hissed.
It amused him how her expression was appropriately appalled at the mere thought of what he was about to say. She did know him well. Of course, her expression would not prevent him from continuing.
“Mother was not pleased when I suggested that producing children did not require a marriage license.”
“You did not!” Victoria shook her head. “Of course, you did. I can nearly hear you saying it.”
“I am wounded.”
“By the truth?”
“No, by the thought that you think I would –” A severe glare stopped his words.
“Are you or are you not, Roger Shelton, the charmer of ladies, the stealer of kisses, the seeker of pleasure?”
Even before we get to Victoria’s statement describing Roger in this section, we should have already ascertained that these two know each other very well, that they are opposites when it comes to propriety, and Roger is a rake. We don’t really need Victoria to state what should be obvious to us from the conversation the two friends are having. However, could there be a reason why that sentence is necessary? Could it be there to reveal something about Victoria? Those words, coupled with the glare she is giving him, should let us know that, in this relationship, Victoria is the more likely of the two to do any scolding.
By the end of the first chapter, the reader of His Darling Friend should have a good understanding of the friendship that exists between Roger and Victoria and should also have a hunch that there is more than just a friendship brewing between the two life-long friends.
Now that we have looked at two brief examples of character and relationships being revealed through the action, dialogue, and thoughts in a story, let’s move on to deciphering how a character might be feeling during a scene.
I want you to pay attention to Lydia in this excerpt from Loving Lydia. Can you see, through her actions, the mix of emotions she is feeling?
Lydia rose, dried her eyes and nose once more, straightened her shoulders, and lifted her chin.
Elizabeth wound her arm around Lydia’s, and they took their time returning to the house. Just as they were about to enter through the servant’s entrance, Lydia stopped.
“I am scared,” she whispered when Elizabeth turned toward her. “What if I am not as good as you or Jane?”
“What do you mean? Neither Jane nor I are better than you.”
“Oh, you are!” Lydia cried. “You think about things that are not fashion.”
“That does not make us better.”
Lydia looked at the ground. “What if I discover I am not the kind of lady who can love someone who is not handsome?”
She straightens her shoulders and lifts her chin. This should give the feeling of someone determined to take on whatever lies ahead. And her determination carries her as far as the door to the house where she stops and whispers. That whisper should make us pay special attention to what she is fearful of revealing. There is no one there to hear her except Elizabeth. She does not need to hide her words from anyone except herself and her sister. That’s significant. Then, as she comes to the heart of what is causing her unease, she looks at the ground as if she is embarrassed to admit what she is feeling. Again, that little motion is significant to deciphering Lydia’s feelings. I am sure you can tell from this excerpt that the Lydia in this story is not the standard one dimensional Lydia we might expect from canon. This Lydia has layers.
Next, let’s take a look at some nuances of a changing Caroline in this story.
“…There is a door at the far end, do you see it? It is nearly obscured by design.”
“Oh, yes! It is very cleverly done,” Lydia answered.
“That is how your servants will most often enter and exit. Well, the junior staff and below. Servants such as Mrs. Nicholls and Mr. Harvey will enter just as we do. There are lines that must not be crossed. Order cannot be retained as it should be if any maid or groom is allowed to come flouncing in however he or she wishes.” She smiled at Jane. “That is my opinion, of course. A mistress of an estate must determine with the agreement of her husband as to how those lines are formed and how firmly they are held. Sir Matthew, I believe, is more forgiving of things than I am, and, therefore, I shall have to learn his ways.” She turned from the room and took Lydia’s arm. “One must always consider the opinion of one’s husband to be the greater opinion.”
“But what if he is wrong?” Lydia asked.
“He is not. Ever.”
“I think it is not impossible for a husband to be wrong,” Sir Matthew said from where he stood on the grand staircase. “However, I try not to be wrong too often.” He bowed his good days to the ladies. “Not every rule which is parroted from matron to daughter must remain as it is. It is my opinion, that a good marriage is a friendship of the greatest kind. The joining of two people to act as one – not to become as the other but to enhance and support the other.” He smiled and shrugged. “My father was a parson. I fear I have picked up some of his ability to wax eloquent on some subjects which interest me. But, I should allow you to return to your tour. I was just on my way to the library.”
“To read?” Lydia asked.
“Yes,” Sir Matthew replied, his lips twitching ever so slightly.
“Will you be there long?”
He nodded. “Most likely, unless something draws me away from my book.”
“I only ask,” Lydia said very seriously, “so that I will know to be quiet when I enter. My father does not like to be disturbed when he is reading, you see.”
Sir Matthew gave a small bow of his head. “I thank you in advance for your consideration.” He looked at Caroline. “You are doing an admiral job, my dear.”
Caroline beamed as she watched him make his way to the library. “I have been blessed.” She sighed but then looked at Jane. “Even if I did not think it a blessing at first, it is.”
A reader should be able to tell from this excerpt that Caroline is changing. She is not the same Caroline she was when this series of stories departed from Pride and Prejudice’s plot line. However, she has not suddenly become something altogether different either. You should be able to see her feeling of self-importance as she instructs Lydia on things a lady running an estate such as Netherfield should know. We also see her training coming through in her opinion about a husband’s opinion always being correct. Thankfully, Sir Matthew, her betrothed, corrects her on this point. And then at the close, after Sir Matthew has called her my dear and congratulated her on doing a good job, we see her admiration for him. She is a lady in love. And then, we get a quick shot of the sharp Caroline as she gets a little jab in at Jane, who was complicit in the scheme that forced Caroline to accept Sir Matthew’s proposal.
Finally, I want to share a look at one of Elizabeth’s other sisters, who will be a main character in the next book of the Marrying Elizabeth series. If you remember Mary from Delighting Mrs. Bennet, you will know from her few lines in that story that she speaks directly and does not bother to contain her snark if she is speaking to someone she does not particularly care for.
This is the first meeting between Mary and Darcy’s cousin (Colonel Fitzwilliam’s older brother); however, Miss Mary has obviously heard a thing or two about the gentleman. See if you can get tell what her opinion of him is from her actions and words.
“Where our mother’s delights will no longer be able to be heard,” Mary muttered from where she sat in the corner of the room.
Elizabeth gave Mary a stern look. It was one thing to add sardonic comments to a conversation when it was just their close family and friends who were present. It was another thing altogether when one was entertaining a person of importance whose opinion could affect the future happiness of a lady’s sisters. As was normal, a stern glare did little to affect Mary, who merely stared blankly in return as if to say, “but it is true.” And it was true. Elizabeth knew that her mother would not greet Lord Westonbury quietly, for the more excited their mother became, the louder her voice grew.
“Lord Westonbury, this is my sister Mary,” Jane said, “and next to Lydia is Kitty. Mary, Kitty, this is Mr. Darcy’s cousin, the Viscount Westonbury.”
Mary placed her sewing aside and rose – reluctantly, it seemed to Elizabeth – to curtsey and greet Lord Westonbury properly.
“And tell me, Miss Mary,” Westonbury said, making his way across the room to sit near her, “should I fear this introduction to your mother?”
Mary raised an eyebrow at him. “You are likely safe as long as you do not tell her that you know Sally.” She leaned around him to see Lydia. “That was the lady’s name at the brothel, was it not?”
“Mary!” Elizabeth scolded. “A proper lady does not speak of such things.”
“And an honourable gentleman does not do such things, and yet here we are.” She gave Westonbury an appraising look but said no more.
“I am not offended,” Westonbury said.
Mary opened her mouth to speak but closed it again when Elizabeth glared at her. “Then, allow me to be offended on your behalf. I assure you that my sisters do know how to comport themselves properly.”
Again, Mary’s brow rose as if to ask, “Do we?”
If you read that and thought that Mary has no desire to meet Lord Westonbury, has no regard for his title, and is more than a trifling bit angry with the gentleman, you would absolutely correct.
Now, did you note where Lord Westonbury chose to sit? Yep, right next to the angry hornet. And if you are thinking he tends to be the sort to seek out trouble and poke the hornet’s nest, you’d also be correct about that. It should be interesting to find out how their relationship develops.
Before we conclude, let me give one example to answer the question
How does this showing differ from telling?
Instead of showing the meeting of Lord Westonbury and Mary as I did above, I could have said something like…
It was obvious to Elizabeth, from Mary’s expression, that Mary did not care to meet Lord Westonbury while it was equally as evident that Lord Westonbury found Mary to be of interest. How Elizabeth was ever going to endure this call was beyond her.
I have stayed in Elizabeth’s point of view here and have told you what she saw and even gave you how she felt about it. And in some circumstances, if this meeting was just a small point that did not need more attention than a quick glossing over, this sort of telling might be useful.
(There are times that telling is better than showing. For instance, not every bow and curtsy or formal introduction needs to be shown.)
However, this meeting between these two characters is no small point in the story, and I would hope that you would agree that seeing Mary’s expressions, hearing her words, and witnessing Lord Westonbury’s reaction makes for much more interesting reading.
That is where we are going to leave this lesson for today as it has already been a long one. Hopefully, it has been of some benefit to you in seeing how I attempt to use the advice to show and not tell in my writing.
If you wish to read His Darling Friend or Loving Lydia, you can at the time of this posting find them on my blog at these links:
I learned something, and that is something I’ll always appreciate. If someone had posed a question regarding the best way to make cuts in a story to fit it into novella length, and had given me the two choices, I think I would have said that telling would be the most expedient way. But in the examples above and Leenie’s explanations that followed I’m realizing that in every instance she was laying down what was to be. Obstacles will come as the plot proceeds, and we are still going to have our hearts tugged mightily as it does. But we know that Lydia will be brave, and Shelton will break into his darling friend’s heart and also realize his own heart’s readiness to love, and we know from their scene above that Westonbury is going to tease and disrupt Mary’s self righteousness until she can’t stop thinking about him, he’ll realize he want more than just to tease.
And without realizing it this is one of the reasons I love Leenie’s stories so much. I know what a good short story, or novella looks like, I know whether or not I followed the story effortlessly, but just why that is I’ve attributed to characters and plot only. I appreciated the skill without realizing what that skill was.
Michelle, you have such a gift of encouragement! I’m always delighted when someone learns something. The teacher in me can’t help that response. 🙂
The teacher in me also can’t help posing a question based off of your response. (Because you gave me something delicious to think about)
I know I have read short stories and novellas which have fallen short of being completely satisfying and then I have read others which were absolutely wonderful stories. Here’s what I am wondering, and it is just a top of the head sort of thought which has not yet had time to be pondered to any great extent: I wonder if that falling short feeling where it seems like something is missing or the story was “rushed” might not come down to more telling than showing, since as you said, telling can be more expedient? Related to that, could a character feel underdeveloped for the same reason? Does it have any bearing on how the plot is perceived as either well-developed or lacking? I know that all the story elements overlap with each other, so maybe?
Anyway… 🙂 I could discuss writing all day, but then, I would not get any actual writing done, and I do have some of that which needs doing. So thank you for your lovely comments and for the thoughts to ponder. 🙂 I’m off to work on finishing a chapter of Her Secret Beau I started last night before adding a bit more to the brand new story I started on Monday.
Well first, thank you Regina for allowing a spontaneous forum to spring up. Sorry about that, but hey, this is fun stuff. Leenie: I’m not sure that was a question to be discussed but I have some thoughts, however I would need to go back and look at something I read too long ago to remember details…but no sacrifice since I love rereading this author’s stuff anyway…so perhaps we can keep in touch later. It will hang around in my brain for sure. But I believe you nailed it in your comment above.
I definitely do not want to rob you of precious writing time, since I benefit from that so much (selfishly she says.) I had heard of show, don’t tell, for years, but your examples made it completely clear to me for the first time, and I think it helped that those stories were so fresh in my memory. Well, I could talk about this for forever too. Thank you again ladies.
I’ve only gotten one of my two writing goals accomplished so far today. Read life characters needed attention. Namely my son. LOL
Sure we can keep in touch. This is fun stuff. 🙂
Regina, I am so pleased that you enjoyed this post enough to share it with your readers! Thank you.
As a former teacher also, Leenie, I have often said to young writers “Show, do not tell.” In fact, in early May, I participated in a new program here in the Charlotte area. It was called WordART 2019. There were 7 local authors, many of whom are well known nationally, who gave their time to help young writers and a few adults. We talked about a variety of skills, and there were many prompts from which the participants could choose. I spoke of the need to draw the reader in immediately. Personally, I despise it when I read a piece that goes on and on for pages of narration. I view it as immature writing. There are many ways to bring in the back story of the characters without telling it all at once. I had my group begin with dialogue. It was wonderful how the story changed and how each participate who shared their excerpts lit up with enthusiasm in hearing the others offering constructive criticisms along with well-deserved compliments.
That sounds like a wonderful event! And I’m with you on the pages of narrative. In fact, I’ll often skip long passages of narration and only come back to them if I feel like I’m missing something important.