Part v. Showing vs. Telling

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Most writers have probably heard this phrase before. Show, don't tell. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, you have exposition: a comprehensive description and explanation of an idea or theory.

You can't set up a plot and characters without exposition. You need exposition to explain your character's situation and the world she lives in.

Exposition is known more for telling than showing, and that's okay - to an extent.

With exposition comes details, descriptions, actions, and dialogue.

Showing creates images in a reader's imagination. Telling merely catalogs actions and emotions, and can sometimes feel like an overload of information.

Telling and showing can sometimes be confused for one another. The thing to remember here is that telling can always be changed around to show more details.

Another thing to remember about telling is that as long as it's not burdening the writing and distracting the reader (meaning the reader can still understand what is happening and imagine it easily in their minds), then it is okay to have.

When writing a piece of fiction, keep these guidelines in mind to achieve a balance between showing and telling:

• Be brief. Make sure that all of your telling details are actually necessary to advance the plot, either by developing a backstory, establishing the mood/tone, or describing the setting.

• Avoid the dreaded "info dump." Don't overwhelm your reader with information in your story's first few pages. Focus on capturing their attention with a compelling character and an interesting situation, then fold in the details as the plot develops.

• Steer clear of cliches. Never start a story with a character waking up and starting his day—unless you want to put your reader to sleep. (Wattpad writers— including me— are victims of this.)

Gabriel's breathing quickened. Beads of sweat began to form along his receding hairline. He cracked his knuckles. Gabriel had never been this nervous in his life.

So you spot telling in your writing, "but my readers won't know he's nervous!" Believe me, your readers will... if your writing is compelling. Don't underestimate your readers. I find that most Wattpad writers do so by adding details, descriptions, and actions, but then blatantly add the emotion their character is feeling.

Just as the example with Gabriel points out, there is great detail and action, but then it is ruined by adding that last sentence.

Think about it. How many times have you felt nervous in your life and you thought this was the most nervous you've ever been? I can confidently say more than you can probably count. Gabriel might not be young (with his receding hairline), but I'm sure he'll be nervous in another moment in his life. That last sentence is unnecessary and burdens the writing.

If you still can't figure out whether or not your writing is telling or showing, ask the following question: Can the camera see it?

Let's test it out:

When I get outside Watson mansion, I start to feel a bit nervous. I have gone out with boys several times before, but just as friends. Figuring that I am only nervous because this is my first time going out with a boy I like, a stranger I like, I wait on the sidewalk.

- Excerpt from girl_whobreaths_fire's "The Good Girl Stole My Heart" - chapter 5.

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