The often touted number one rule for fiction writers is show, don’t tell. Is it important to get to understand? Yes. It is a must at all times? No. However, my experience of urban fiction is that show, don’t tell is underused. It’s particularly the case with books written in the first person. The narrative can be much too focused on an internal diatribe rather than the external action. And internal dialogues too often don’t follow the show, don’t tell rule.

Okay, let’s get to grips with what it is, and what you can do to ensure you follow the show, don’t tell rule.

Show, Don't TellShowing vs. Telling

Telling is delivering the narrative as a summary of events, whereas showing is an elaboration that causes the reader to feel, sense, and experience the story as if they were there. Think of it is summarizing vs. dramatizing. When put like this it’s much easier to understand why this rule is so important. It gives the reader a much more vivid experience. Think, would you rather read about a Kanye West concert or actually be there? Then write like the reader is there and experiencing every facet of it, not reading a factual report on the event. Don’t just list the facts, bring them to life and set the reader’s mind on fire.

Examples

Telling

    James sat in the chair in the hospital corridor. He was nervous. The doctor informed him his mistress was dead. She had died in childbirth. The doctor asked him if he was the father and therefore the child’s legal guardian. He nodded reluctantly. James thought about his marriage and how his wife was going to leave him. He asked the doctor what he should do.

Showing

    The chair in the hospital corridor was as uncomfortable as James’s situation. He picked at the chair’s fraying seat fabric, revealing the foam underneath. His fingers bled. He’d already chewed through his nails while he anxiously waited.
    “Mr. Dunn?” It was the doctor. His voice mechanical. He knew nothing of James’s worry.
    James stood up. He was itching to hear the news that would either free him or bring his world crashing down. He forced himself to hold the doctor’s gaze, though he could hardy catch his breath. The hospital air was stale.
    “We were able to save the baby. But Jennifer,” the doctor paused, “well, I’m very sorry Mr. Dunn.”
    “Sorry?” he shot back. Contempt dripped from the solitary word, despite his dry mouth.
    “I truly am. Are you the father of the baby? You see I need to know who the legal guardian is because-“
    “You don’t see though, do you?James’s eyes focused to a point and he tuned out the sounds around him as he drilled his stare into the doctor. “If I become the legal guardian for that baby then my wife will know I was having an affair. My life will be over. What am I supposed to do? Tell me.” His heart beat like a hundred stampeding hooves as he awaited the doctor’s answer.

Where to watch out for telling

Telling can happen almost anywhere. Most of all, be most conscious of whether you are showing or telling when you describe what a character is thinking, feeling, and doing. Aim to show, don’t tell.

How to Show, Don’t Tell

There are a couple of key things you can do.

Use the 5 senses and more  – What is the character seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, hearing? But don’t just report on it like this – James smelt the antiseptic in the hospital air. You want to write it in a way that the reader smells it and understands the character is smelling it too – The odor of antiseptic drifted in the air. It caught in the back of James’s throat.

Think also of what the character is thinking, feeling, and doing. But, as stated above, be aware that with these it is easier to slip into telling rather than showing.

Use dialogue – Often, stale scenes can be improved and more can be shown, rather than told, by bringing in dialogue between two or more characters to help describe what is going on. A passage may read – The workmen saw that their work had been made that much harder by the situation left to them by the previous team. It was frustrating and would need raising again with their manager. Instead, try:

    “Shit,” said Bill.
    “What is is?” asked David.
    “Look, Tommy’s team did it again. They’ve filled it in with cement. We’re gonna have to dig that shit out. We don’t have time for this. We shouldn’t have to put up with it.”
    “Let’s get it done, okay? I’ll have it out with the boss when I call him at lunch.”

Know when to show and when to tell

Show – If a scene is interesting then show. It’s also likely to interest your readers and you want to leverage that. You should also expand upon a scene by showing, if it’s integral to your narrative and moves the plot forward. Likewise, if there is something being experienced, particularly something emotional, then show that. You really need to avoid saying John felt sad. No one just feels sad. It’s a living, breathing, visceral experience. Show that.

Tell – If a scene is boring, or necessary, and you can’t cut it out, then consider telling it. It’s likely to bore your readers too. You want to get it done and out of the way if it is necessary and can’t be cut. For example, it could be how a character gets from A to B so the next scene can happen. No point lingering on the details of his bus ride or commute. You can summarize that. The same if it’s something repetitive. David’s commute got him to work at the usual time. He was tired of the traffic, like every day, but it was the price he paid for working in downtown L.A.

 

In the end, you should find yourself showing in about 80% of your writing and telling the rest of the time. Keep working at this part of the craft because no author has perfected it.

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Sam Hunter
Author

Founder of UrbanFiction.org and supporter of all urban fiction authors. Author of the Makaveli’s Prince books. His first novel, Book One, was described by Street Literature as a “true tribute to hip-hop” and weaves a thrilling ride through some of hip-hop’s darkest secrets. You won’t be able to put his books down. They’re packed with conspiracy, drama and often centered on strong female characters. You’re in for a ride.


All his books are on Amazon Kindle and Google Play Books.