Where do you draw the line?

When is it necessary to “show” instead of “tell”? Many writer friends debate this concept, and I’ve found that the answer isn’t as simple as some might think.

As I blogged the other day, showing is where most of the magic occurs for the reader. Because he or she can’t see what the writer is imagining, it’s important for the writer to be as descriptive as possible, using as many senses as possible.

With that in mind, I believe there are some times when showing isn’t necessary. In fact, if writers were to show instead of tell with every single line, then books would be much, much longer. The stories would leave little up to the readers, and they would feel terribly melodramatic.

This is a tricky line to walk. If a writer stops showing in some places, what is to prevent him or her from telling the whole way through a novel, causing the reader to get bored and disengage? Which parts are worthy of being “shown,” as opposed to the sections that can be fine with a simple, telling sentence or two?

I’ve seen writers in critique groups go back and forth on this topic without coming to a unanimous agreement. Many authors rely on the very scientific method of just feeling it out.  🙂

Readers: how much “showing” do you like to get from your favorite authors?

Writers: where do you draw the line?


6 responses to “Where do you draw the line?

  1. Funny. I don’t see showing vs. telling as being primarily about description at all; it’s more an exhortation toward using active verbs and telling details. So my reaction is: Why do you ever *need* to tell at all? The word count difference between “He was angry at Martha,” and “He scowled at Martha’s back,” is nil, after all.

    Isn’t it funny how we all bring our own interpretation to these stock pieces of writing advice?

    • Andrea, excellent point! I have always been a huge fan of verbs. They have magical powers, as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

      “He scowled at Martha” is definitely more showing than telling, and it’s clearly better than “He was angry at Martha.” Is there ever a situation where authors take this too far, though? I’ve seen things like (not exactly, of course), “The machine whirred in the corner of the room, dripping ice-cold water onto the worn carpet. As Henry and Martha lay, huddled apart under the cheap hotel sheets, goose bumps rose on their skin, and they shivered, teeth chattering…” and so on for several sentences, in situations where the cold hotel room isn’t even the major focus of the story. Would it ever be just enough to write, “Henry had had enough of the stiff bed, the freezing air conditioner, and Martha’s attitude”?

  2. This is a great topic. A few years ago, I read a guest blog by an editor, the lovely Laura Shin of Harlequin, in which she addressed this very point, saying that sometimes, to keep from bogging down the pace, a writer absolutely needs to just TELL. I wish I could find that again, because she expressed it so clearly. It’s a wiggly line, and so hard to judge. We’re all sometimes guilty of slavishly following the “rules” we’ve heard in workshops, when in fact the execution is much more nuanced than any “rule” can capture. If only it were that simple, right?

    • I wish you could find that blog, too! It’s definitely not simple, and I agree that all of the writing rules are on the same wiggly line. Most of my favorite writers seem to have a pretty good sense of when it’s necessary to walk the line, and when it’s way more fun to veer off into something different. 🙂

  3. Are you familiar with the Uncle Jim theory of writing? He says that every sentence should reveal character, advance plot, or support theme. Reams of description that don’t do one of those things are just dead weight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s