• Grace A. Johnson

Ask Ann-Marguerite™: What is Showing and Telling?


The last week has been so busy, I have yet to catch my breath. Noël came and went so quickly, leaving behind messes to clean and things to do and many, many naps to take. My heads still spins when I think about it. More so, my head spins when I think of all I have yet to do!

I have an appointment with Monsieur Calvin, the editor of the local newsprint, tomorrow afternoon, which I have pushed back as far as I could.

I am meeting with a writer friend of mine who is in town for the next several days to discuss my first draft sometime this week.

I have to take M. Watteau to the doctor’s office across town on vendredi.

To add to this, I have a stack of letters for the advice column I intend to answer, and annual luncheons with my new acquaintance, M. Darcy.

Aujourd’hui, however, I hope to get some writing in. I may organize my letters for the coming weeks, but that is low on the list since I have crucial editing to attend to before I meet with mon amie Angélique.

I draw back my chair, sitting before an open window that affords me a view of the snowy street below, down which several couples dash, bobbing in and out of shops and buildings, carrying on with their lives and the busyness the holiday season left behind. It is momentarily distracting, the constant weaving and ducking and twirling, each movement correlating with the steady fall of the snowflakes from the heavy grey clouds.

I am tempted to gaze out the window forever and politely ignore the long list of to-dos I have awaiting me on my refrigerator, and calendar, and desk, and bathroom mirror. However, as I lean onto my elbows, I bump into my selected papers for editing and am reminded of what is foremost.

Across from my few chapters and my red ink pen lies a small stack of letters. There are only huit or neuf, but certainly more than I have received in the past few weeks. I am even more so tempted to open the damp envelopes and not only ensure the ink hasn’t smeared but also read over the questions. This advice column is quickly becoming the highlight of my week, and I look forward to more and more questions every week.

Only one will not hurt, oui?

I gingerly take the top envelope, easing it open with a gentle finger to keep from damaging the contents or the stamp (M. Watteau collects stamps, and he has been after me to save all of mine for him). A small slip of paper tumbled out onto the tabletop, revealing a flourishing script that reads:

Dear Ann-Marguerite,

I have written a few short stories for friends and family, and they all enjoy them greatly. However, I submitted them to an editor and they rejected every one of them. She said I need to work on my “showing” and “telling.” At the time, I was too upset and embarrassed to ask her what she meant. Now I wonder, what exactly is showing and telling?

J'apprécie ton aide,

A Rejected Writer

Juste ciel, rejection! Now that is no subject with which to toy. Despite my longings to reach out to this lost writer, I know their question was concerning something else entirely—betterment rather than pity.

What is showing and telling?

In writing, it means something so much more than it means inpréscolaire. It is, in fact, the definition of one’s writing itself, whether it shows or tells.

I need an example to explain, for mastering the art of balanced depiction is no easy task.

When depicting emotion, it is easy for anyone to quickly write “She is sad.” It is straightforward and immediately alerts the reader as to how the character feels without frills or excessive words. However, most readers desire to visualize the book in their minds; therefore, they need to be shown this emotion.

A better approach would be “Tears streamed down her red face as silent sobs shake her shoulders.” Here, we not only are told that the girl is sad, we see clearly that she is crying and, per the silence of her sobs, holding this emotion in for some reason. Also, the cause of her sadness must be grief or disappointment, as her reaction seems to be much calmer than if she were angry or in pain.

In the depiction of an action, it is far too simple to type “He ran through the woods.” But there is no connection between the reader, the character, the setting, and the story at all within something so short and undetailed.

Something along the lines of “He dashed through the forest, avoiding the ash trees around him and the arrows flying past him” would not only let us know that he is running through a wooded area, but we also see him ducking and dodging tree branches and panting as he misses arrows that could take his life.

To further balance the above sentence, emotion and thought should be added. Of course, that is an answer for another question, but I shall expound some.

When viewing a motion picture, one not only sees a figure running, one hears the whistle of the wind, the crunch of the leaves, and sees his wild eyes and heaving chest. We are given a glimpse into his labor and his feelings, perhaps even his thoughts if we watch close enough. In a book, we do not have to study him like a psychiatrist to determine his innermost thoughts and emotions. We can plainly read it.

But stating so like “He ran, scared and tired” is so disconnected, non? One sentence cannot be expected to contain so much information. Here, we need several sentences—one for the action, one for external description, one for emotion, and one for thought.

#1 Action: “He dashed through the forest, avoiding the ash trees around him and the arrows flying past him.” Here, we use verbs like “dash,” “avoid,” and “fly,” but keep adverbs and adjectives to a minimum. The reader can see the man running quickly and moving from side to side.

#2 Description: “An eerie whistle weaved through the crisp orange leaves beneath his aching feet and entwined with the chill of autumn.” Here, with a handful of adjectives, we let the reader know that it is autumn and cold. The reader can also gather other details, like that the man is tired and his feet are aching. With these details, the reader can paint a scene of a dark forest during the fall and a man on the run for his life.

#3 Emotion: “The chill wound around his heart, slowly squeezing the life from him as the realization grew stronger and stronger: he was going to die.” We don’t even need to explicitly state that he is afraid. The adverbs and verbs we chose implies that. The chill is winding and squeezing, leaving him with the knowing that his life is coming to an end. Even the reader will be able to feel concern, if not fear, for the character.

#4 Thought: “It can’t end this way...not yet.” Often in the form of italicized first-person, present-tense monologue, the character’s thoughts correspond with the emotion we present and give us some insight into what is going on. Without this showing of what he is thinking, the reader would be unaware of his regrets and even his need to continue to live. Something must be set to rights. Does the reader know what it is? If not, will they find out?

The ellipsis point is also a fantastic tool; it shows pause, hesitation, and many other things we employ verbally but cannot type out in the middle of a sentence with words like “pause.”Use it whenever you feel your character is grasping for words, trailing off in their thoughts, or leaving us on the edge of a cliff.

Showing is depicting action, emotion, objects, and more with an entirely different manner of phrasing. It is something learned slowly and examined carefully; one can rarely ever tell when they are not showing correctly.

However, telling is very much important.

It is all about proper balance, and in some instances the thought and emotion takes precedence over the action or description—especially when writing in first-person. Telling what the character is doing, then shifting into heavy monologue is necessary for creating a close bond with your character, particularly in the most frightening, emotional, romantic, or suspenseful situations.

Telling should be used only in those instance, however, and determining which ones those are is nearly as much work—if not more—as learning how to show.

To achieve proper balance is a lifelong endeavor. The first step is getting to know your character better than you know yourself. Once you know how they react to different situations and emotions, then you can determine when to show and when to tell.

I smile down at the letter I hold. Not only do I have an answer, I have a lot of work to do in my own writing. Just how well do I know my characters? Better yet, how do I get to know them in the first place?

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