Showing or Telling? — Carolyn Wilker

A student wrote a story about a day she walked her dog to the park and about their discovery of a body. She had hurried to a nearby house to ask someone to call police, and when the police arrived, they wanted her to give a statement. She wrote that she felt shaken from the experience.

Those are the bare bones of a potentially bigger story and the emotion inherent in such a scene—not that we want to go for a walk any day and find a body.

Novels, and indeed short stories, have been written on variations of the themes: man against man, man against himself, and man against nature. Included are plot, scene, description, and dialogue between characters.

The readers want to see

detectiveThe readers want to see the details for themselves, such as the red hair, or piercing blue eyes, or the way a character dresses. Readers want to form their own opinion about the motives of a character and if she is likable or not.

In Description and Setting, author Ron Rozelle writes, “To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail.”  The description needs to be real enough to engage the reader.

The writer will offer cues and show the reader the place an event happened and describe the witnesses as they appear in the story. A novel has plenty of space to lay out plot and scenes, and a shorter story shares many of these aspects, albeit on a smaller scale.

Details that matter

Strunk and White wrote, In Elements of Style, “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite and concrete.”

Show the details that matter most and know that in a mystery, the clues may be relayed in a way that keeps the reader guessing. What are the details that will keep the reader engaged in your story?

Both telling and showing

In novel and short story alike, the narrator has a task. If the writer were to describe every event or moving about in detail, the story would either be very long or put the reader to sleep. In Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich writes that a quick character summary may fill in background a reader needs to know. In such a summary there would be no dialogue or dramatic action taking place, and he suggests that sometimes the risk is worth taking.

The writer needs to get people to places with the least amount of fuss, or to announce a happening of less importance, or perhaps in the case of the student going for a walk, to first put the leash on her dog.

When do you show and when do you tell? You, as the writer, will make that call. Will it advance the story to describe the action or is it the narrator’s task to tell what happens next? Whatever the length of the story, there has to be enough detail to transport the reader into the scene, but let the narrator do his job too.


carolyn-wilkerCarolyn Wilker

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