Maybe I should just stop reading any advice about writing. I say this because one of the currently popular writing rules is that you should show, not tell. Meaning, if you want to let your reader know that Jake had a craving and went to the store and bought frozen goat lungs, you don’t just write “Jake wanted frozen goat lungs, so he went to the store and bought some.”

No, instead you write, “Jake awoke Sunday morning to the wispy memory of a dream. He had dreamt of his childhood; sultry afternoons on the bayou when nothing could refresh him like a chunk of frozen goat lung. Longing to recreate this time in his life, he downed a quick cup of coffee, then laced on his sneakers and zipped up his windbreaker for a trip to the grocery store. He arrived at the store breathless because his need for goat lungs was so intense that he ran the whole way there. Upon entering the store he made a beeline for the frozen ruminant aisle. Hefting a 10 pound sack of frozen goat lungs, he trotted to the checkout lanes and paid for his food with his Bank of America Cloven Hooved Rewards credit card.”

When I was working on my first serious round of revisions I got very caught up in the “show don’t tell” rule. I decided that I would improve my novel vastly by going through it scene by scene and showing everything that I had previously told. I was then told by agents that many of the scenes dragged and provided a level of detail that was completely unnecessary and made the story read more like a screenplay. If you compare the above “tell” and “show” examples, I think you can see why. Really, did we need to be shown how Jake got his goat lung, or would it have sufficed to simply have learned that he acquired it?

What I now know is that sometimes telling is exactly the right thing to do. If you want to convey information that’s germane to the story, but not especially interesting, telling is the way to go. Showing is powerful, so it should be saved for when there is more to convey than simple detail. Showing can put the reader in the scene and make it immediate and real in a way that telling can’t.

So, for example, if Jake gets angry, you could say, “Jake was mad that his roommate ate his goat lungs and didn’t leave him any.” This doesn’t really give the reader an immediate sense of Jake’s anger because the description puts a layer in between the reader and the emotion.

To “show” you could say “Jake slammed the freezer shut and whirled around to face Aaron. Aaron looked up from his nearly empty plate, ‘What’s up, roomie?’ he said, struggling to form the words around the wad of goat lung he was chewing. His plate jumped as Jake’s fist slammed the table, ‘you ate my f***ng goat lungs again, you douche!’”

In summary; if you want to tell about something dull like a grocery store purchase, that’s germane to the story but not really all that interesting – tell. If you want to convey or evoke emotion about something like roommate rage at the bogarting of a beloved delicacy  – show.

Posted by lesherjennifer

9 Comments

  1. Oh, I love your Wednesday posts. That was great.

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    1. Thank you!

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  2. I think you’re on to something here, in fiction and non-fiction. Showing is sometimes tangential to the plot.

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    1. Thanks Candace!

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  3. Examples of when to show not tell and tell not show via goat lungs? That gave me just the giggle I needed to keep writing today. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks Jenny. I’m not quite sure where the goat lungs came from, but I decided to just go with it!

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  4. I think Jake’s culinary taste needs to be called in to question, but otherwise I think you’re on to something. 😉

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  5. […] I wonder if things would have gone better with the Cloven Hooved […]

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  6. […] task, full of self-doubt, interminable edits, learning to show more and tell less (but sometimes tell because it was the right thing to do), and long days and nights with nothing but my laptop for […]

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