Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

“Show, don’t tell” is arguably one of the most important principles of writing fiction. It’s the foundation of all of dramatic storytelling. “Telling” may get the bones of a scene across. But “showing” is what brings it to life.

So it should come as no surprise that failing to show important scenes in your story is a major writing mistake.

The Difference Between Telling and Showing

The problem is that “show, don’t tell” can be a tricky paradigm for writers to get their heads around. What the heck does “show, don’t tell” mean anyhow?

It is confusing, largely because all of fiction is telling, to one degree or another (there’s a reason we don’t call ourselves “storyshowers”). The major difference between telling and showing is that telling is summarizing and showing is dramatizing. Consider a basic example:

Telling/Summarizing

Jakarta attended Mrs. Beasley’s tea party.

Showing/Dramatizing

Jakarta knocked on the door to Mrs. Beasley’s ornate, if somewhat decrepit, Victorian.

The maid let her in and curtsied. “Right this way, Miss.”

Jakarta managed a smile and tiptoed down the musty hall and into a gorgeous sunroom. Tea for two in Wedgewood china was set on a lace-covered table.

Jakarta bit her lip. Should she stick out her pinkie when she drank?

The Basics of Showing and Telling

Right off the bat, we see that showing involves more length and more detail than telling. Showing is all about providing the reader with a full-color, meticulous representation of what’s happening. Showing lets the reader in on what the character is:

  • Seeing
  • Touching
  • Smelling
  • Tasting
  • Hearing
  • Feeling
  • Thinking
  • Doing
  • Saying

The works, baby, the works.

Eighty to ninety percent of your book will be showing, in one form or another—whether it’s of scenes in which your character is taking physical action or scenes in which his internal narrative is offering a real-time account of his inner emotions and thoughts.

That means, of course, that the rest of your book can and should contain telling. Not every scene or moment in your story will be fascinating enough or important enough to warrant full-on dramatization (unless, of course, you’re Victor Hugo). Telling is a vital tool for skipping boring, repetitious, or ancillary segments of your story.

What telling is not appropriate for is any scene that is interesting or important to your plot.

When to Show Your Scenes

How do you know when a scene is important enough to warrant full-on showing? Consider the following checklist.

  • The scene fascinates you. (If it fascinates you, it just might fascinate your readers too.)
  • The scene moves the plot forward. (If the story wouldn’t work without it, it probably deserves to be dramatized.)
  • The scene is emotional for your character. (If your character is about to experience something life-changing or thought-provoking, readers need to experience it right along with him.)

When to Tell Your Scenes

You know you may be dealing with one of your story’s necessary telling scenes if it fulfils any of the following.

  • The scene is nothing but necessary filler. (If it’s necessary to the story only to create a basic causal link—such as the character driving from his house to his workplace—then you can probably safely summarize it.)
  • The scene is repetitious. (If the scene is just a variation of “Brendan told the fish story again,” then readers aren’t likely to need or want to re-hear every detail.)

Learning to become a great writer is largely a matter of learning how to appropriately show and tell. If you can master the art of showing, instead of telling important scenes, you’re halfway to greatness already!

Tell me your opinion: What was the last scene you show to “tell” in your story–and why?

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. My most recent scene involved my lead characters making love for the first time, so the showing is far essential than the telling in this case. One of the challenges to a scene like this is relaying how everything feels to the character rather than focus on something that really doesn’t need a lot of description. One of the things that used to frustrate me with romances I read was how often authors felt it necessary to go into detail for every lovemaking session. By then I am thinking, ‘Right, I get it, he’s the best, can we move on to the plot?’ That first instance the characters come together is integral, so it benefits from a little descriptive indulgence. The rest? A telling statement definitely suffices.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is true no matter what kind of scene you’re writing. If the characters’ inner reactions don’t matter enough to take center stage, then you have to question whether the portrayal of the outer action is arbitrary.

    • Whoah, this comment speaks to me. It always irritates me when people don’t know how to walk that line. It sounds like you’ve got it figured out, though. If I’m jumping into the middle with characters already in a relationship, and don’t even have to do the first detailed session, I like to do a paragraph or two with a couple interesting details involving whatever makes their sexual relationship different than others.

  2. Great article. I have often thought that ‘all of fiction is telling, to one degree or another’ and like the way you distinguish between ‘narrative summary’ and ‘dramatizing’. Very succinct. Even when dramatizing there are ways to go deeper into ‘showing’ 🙂 But as all writing is about choices, when and where to use certain word choices, techniques and approaches – I appreciate that you have not just given the mantra ‘show don’t tell’ but given good, sensible guidelines of when it is best to show and when it is probably advisable to tell.

  3. Very nice article. I’m still learning to show more than tell. I have a question about showing how the character feels.

    I always thought that if you directly express how the character feels it’s telling. Instead if you show how the character reacted then it’s showing. But then that’s much harder to do and you can’t be sure what the reader will make of the character’s reactions.

    What do you think?

  4. I’ve noticed I personally fall into “telling” when my writing gets lazy. Showing is more labor intensive so when I want to move the story along or I am tired of a scene, I will “tell” my way out of it. I just received an agent rejection because the last third of my novel used too much summary (AKA too telling). Now I’m editing with an eye for lazy, telling writing to strengthen into a more engaging scene. Thanks for all your suggestions!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think that’s definitely true for most of us. Telling is easy; showing requires a lot more of a personal investment of time and energy. But it’s more fun too!

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    Actually knowing your story in full is essential for this reason: without the full knowledge beforehand, how possibly will you know that the “insignificant” experience earlier on becomes emotionally important later? How possibly will you know that this early conversation or experience, that’s “trivial”, now in fact needs to be properly shown because it’s so emotionally essential later on to the character?

    Being able to strike the right balance between showing and telling requires first knowing the whole story; the whole narrative trajectory. Themes, motifs, acts of symbolism, emotional climaxes, all results of the showing – without the just first knowing, they can all go out of window.

    The Representative was planned inside-out. It’s a literary entity so distilled, so planned, and so emotionally “figured out”, even the telling is showing.

  6. some novels do a heckuva lot of telling of a characters thoughts and emotions, and it works for that kind of novel.

    in this article you contrast showing and telling of actions.
    What about showing vs. telling of thoughts/emotions and descriptions?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All three – action, thoughts, and emotions- have to work together. And, actually, if you look at my showing example, you’ll see that it incorporates showing the character’s thoughts and emotions as well.

  7. Hi K.M.

    Such a great post and this will help me greatly for my first session of NaNoWriMo in November. I have a few books on Amazon but they are instructional and self-help books. I am looking forward to stepping into the fiction world of writing.

    I am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s and your book “Behold the Dawn” seems like exactly the type of books I love to read and want to write; historical fiction.

  8. Well the thing is, I am a master of art of telling :/
    This area is where my stories suffer most. I almost always find myself telling instead of showing, result? Another day of rewriting 🙁

  9. Kinza,
    I think telling our stories is only natural, because we tell so much in our real lives. Being aware of that and looking for ways to make the telling into showing is the first step. Revision is the second, much harder step. But it is worth it, at least, that’s what I keep telling myself! Good luck!

  10. This was really helpful. I was just writing a chapter of my novel and there was a really important scene in it. I wrote it but I wasn’t satisfied. At first I thought I was just going through a writer’s block. But after reading this article, I know where my point of weakness lies – I didn’t show it vividly. I just told it.
    Will rewrite the chapter now! 🙂

  11. Jan Satterlee says:

    LOL! “Isn’t that a great feeling – when your conscious brain catches up with your subconscious?”

    I’m a hypnotherapist in my other reality, and deal with the conscious and subconscious mind all the time–love this!

    I like to take a scene I’m working on, and rewrite it in different ways in order to see how many I can come up with–then I pick the one that does the best job showing and not telling.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s great! Sometimes doing things repeatedly is what it takes to get past the obvious, cliched options and find the ones that truly shine.

  12. Jan,
    That’s a great way to do it! I think sometimes writer’s feel like a scene can’t “live” more than once on paper. But why not write the scene from different perspective or a different setting or even with different characters? I started the opening scene for my newest work and struggled with how to put in the details I wanted without overly telling. I had to let it sit for a couple of days because I just wasn’t feeling it. Now I think I will try your approach and write it from a different angle. Rewrite it somewhere else. Keep what works and toss the rest! Thanks so much for the suggestions!

  13. Jan Satterlee says:

    Janelle,
    I’m so glad my idea works for you! I just used it again this morning, and substituted place and characters–and voila! A brand new scene that works great.
    Good luck with your writing!

  14. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    I like your post. I am currently writing a novella.

    Here are some scenes for examples-

    Merlyn, the priestess arrived at the throne room alone without the princesses. She looked at the king and queen.
    “Your majesties, the mer-prince from the sapphire clan is here,” Merlyn said. “Jewel is going to get married to this mer-prince,”

    “Yes, she is,” Jewel’s father, Ponto Jaden said.

    “Indeed so,” Jewel’s mother, Pearl Regina replied. “My great grandma Yasmina told me that our clan and the sapphire clan would join together as one people,”

    Later, that day was Jewel and Marissa’s birthday celebration. Jewel and Marissa met Kai, and his sisters, Nerine and Nerissa.

    Everyone sat across from each other at a table.

    The food was shrimp, kelp, and seaweed.

    Then Jewel almost chocked on her food when Merlyn talked about that Jewel’s getting married to Kai.

    “May I be excused,” Jewel said. She swam out of the room with her turquoise and amethyst mer-tail.
    Jewel swam to her room and unhappy tears came down her face.
    Merlyn came in after her. “Your highness, are you okay?” She gave Jewel a hug and told her lets talk about it.

    Chapter 3

    In Jewel’s bedroom, Jewel was crying and Merlyn comforted her.
    Merlyn said. “You are getting married to Kai,”
    “I don’t want to get married,” Jewel replied.
    “Your parents say this. They told me so,” “I still do not want to get married,” Jewel said.

    Chapter 4

    Merlyn told Jewel why she is getting married. “You are getting married also because your great grandma Yasmina knew you would,” Merlyn said.
    “I can’t marry some I don’t love,” Jewel said. “I just met Kai, now I am getting married? It is too fast! Is it an arranged marriage?”
    “Yes, it is your highness, from your great grandparents you know. Your parents want you to have an heir or heirs to become queen after you,” Merlyn explained as she gave Jewel a hug. “ Please give this some thought,” she added.

    Thoughts on this? Bigger or smaller simple sentences.

  15. Ms. Albina says:

    K.M.,

    Do beta readers charge money?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No. Usually, it works as a trade. You read a story of theirs in exchange for them reading yours.

  16. K.M,

    Thank you. I just need someone to read my novella that I am working on and also the Mera clan book also.

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