Buying into a Binary

Writing which shows is almost always touted as superior to writing that tells. Examples of this are filled with intriguing dialog, exciting actions accompanied by descriptive detail filled with aromas, colors, and noises. On the other hand, telling explains who people are in an easy to comprehend manner and is described as plain vanilla. Some people forget that vanilla is also a spice. 

Often my romantic comedy scenes are filled with the quirky conversations interspersed with subtle movements. I include interior thoughts straight from the protagonist’s mind to inform the reader. That’s necessary because not all characters speak the truth. However, at one point in my story I switched the style to something more direct for a lengthy flashback about the leading man’s first crush. A beta reader noted a difference in the style of this chapter that she liked. There was almost no dialog and sparse details. Yet this passage related the events from a few weeks of his life in a manner that reflected the irony of the situation. I hesitated to tell her the truth about the difference but finally admitted, “I changed my style from showing to telling to cover events more quickly.” 

Of course, my confession runs completely counter to the adage that showing is preferable. Supposedly, showing draws the reader into the story and telling will pull them out of it. Some people are drawn to describing good-bad dichotomies that split anything in half, including the world’s literature. They want to create a binary down to the level of minutia to ensure that their work is unquestionably “good.” There are even lists of “telling” words.

Using “in” followed by an emotion is basically forbidden as a form of telling. The writer should say the woman clenches her fists rather than glares in anger. Which phrase is better depends on the point of view. The man standing across the room sees the glare long before he notes the marks left by fingernails digging into her palms. Also the reader doesn’t have to decipher that when a woman lifts their cheeks, curls up the ends of her lips and squints that she is smiling in glee. 

Near the top of the list of words that signal telling is “to” when used to form an infinitive.

“The man slammed on the brake to pull off the road.” — telling 

“The man slammed on the brake and pulled off the road.” — showing.

What is the difference? The first sentence provides a motivation that the reader could not detect if watching the man. It explains why he slowed down. The second example only provides what can be seen. Most readers don’t even notice the difference.

 The word “realized” is also a big no-no. A realization describes what a character is thinking inside and not just what they do on the outside. The examples that I found for replacing “realized” and other “telling” words lead to an insight of my own. Replacing phrases that were told with phrases that showed doubled or tripled the amount of words. So, stories that only show (if any actually exist) are huge volumes that readers may have a hard time wading through. Sometimes, the plot needs to move forward faster, so a direct style boosts interest. Authors choose which style to use based on the desired pace. And exactly what criteria do they use to decide this? Their own gut instincts. Creative processes don’t fit neatly inside little boxes.

This entry was posted in Creativity, Literature, Showing versus telling, Story structure, Style and voice. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Buying into a Binary

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. The student learns the rules; the master knows when to use them and break them. No writer should be the same as their contemporaries.

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