The Value of SHOWmanship in Fiction


Recently, I’ve heard a few editors comment that they don’t worry about showing things in fiction, that they think editors and writers get too caught up showing when it’s really not all that important. Telling is okay. It’s just as strong and effective as showing.

I beg to differ.

Consider this from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a stellar book by Renni Browne and Dave King:

“Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did. Since engagement is exactly what a fiction writer wants to accomplish, you’re well advised to rely heavily on immediate scenes to put your story across. You want to draw your readers into the world you’ve created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can’t do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.”

Well put. When you tell a story—relate the information in narrative summary—you don’t engage readers. But when you show…readers are captured, captivated, and drawn in. They have the vicarious, sensory experience your characters have–and they care about what’s happening. And in the caring, readers discover, learn, and are changed.

Therein lies the power of fiction.

I was reminded of this just last week, as I worked with a delightful writer acting as her writing coach. This author is crafting a collection of novelized stories about women in the Bible. She hopes to show contemporary women what they have to learn from these women “of old,” and to give them new eyes to see familiar stories.

Her first story? Bathsheba. The opening scene? When she steps out onto the roof to take her bath. It was a nice enough scene, one that gave readers interesting information on the cleansing rituals of the day and that let us know some about Bathsheba’s background. But it was a lot of telling. So I gave the writer a series of assignments and set her loose on the scene.

Well! Let me tell you, that opening scene has come ALIVE. As I read her rewrite, I was transported to that rooftop. I smelled the fragrant blossoms around and in the bath; luxuriated in the silky oils she rubbed into her hair and skin; studied the night sky, worrying with Bathsheba over her warrior husband, Uriah, who was out on the battlefield and not safe at home. I whispered with her the ritual prayers, and then was rocked, as was she, by the terrifying sensation that someone was out there, watching…

It was night and day, folks. The story was so much more emotive, so much more powerful, being shown rather than told. So I encourage you, don’t give up on doing the work. Yes, by all means, tell when it’s right. But when you want to transport your readers, when you want to immerse them in your story and characters, put in the time and effort to show.

Your readers will bless you for it.


9 Responses to The Value of SHOWmanship in Fiction

  1. Bethany Macklin May 9, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Thanks for a great post. The example you used to “show” us what you meant, was very effective–and inspiring! Great job. :)

  2. JennyM May 9, 2012 at 9:30 am #

    Great post Karen!! (I actually scrolled back up to see if you or Tamela’s names were on this one. Phewf.)
    The “showing” is SO important!!! Now I feel bad all over again for Bathsheba.
    I have a question though, if I am moving my story along and feel that chapter upon chapter of “showing” would bog the reader down in non-essentials, is it fair to “tell” what happened, and save the “show” business (ar ar ar) for when the reader is called upon to be more emotionally engaged?

  3. Rick Barry May 9, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Although I do see a lot of telling even in the pages of modern novels, it’s true that telling can’t compare to showing. When an author scoops me out of my living room and drops me onto a chaotic battlefield, or into frigid water beside the Titanic, or some other remarkable place, I’m not likely to close the book!

    Thanks for a worthy reminder, Karen.

  4. Karen Ball May 9, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    Jenny, yes, you should tell when you’re just moving the story along or imparting information without an emotional component. Showing is for exactly what you said, “when the reader is called upon to be emotionally engaged.”

    • JennyM May 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

      Thank you for answering. I am aiming for the sweet spot between showing and telling, and the balance of the two, whilst killing off my bad (BAD) guy.

  5. TC Avey May 9, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Awesome example of the difference between showing and telling. Thank you!

  6. Ruth A. Douthitt May 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    Excellent advice! I tend to overtell…

    Thanks for the reminder that readers want to be in the action, in the moment, immediately. Great example you provided, too.

    Now I have to go back and check my WIP to make sure I am showing more than telling.

  7. Jeanne May 9, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    I’m still figuring out how to show rather than tell. I’m improving, but haven’t yet mastered this. I try to put myself in the scene and figure out what the five senses are picking up on and then write it in. Figuring out how to show, not tell, the emotional senses is my current skill to master. Loved your example today, Karen. Thanks!

  8. Iola May 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    Love the Browne & King quote. I’ve recently been reading Sol Stein, who explains that we are now a generation who have grown up being entertained by visual images (movies, TV, more recently YouTube), which is why we need to have these visual images in our writing.

    Older, ‘classic’ authors were able to get by with much more ‘telling’, because their readers didn’t watch for entertainment – they read, or listened to stories being read to them.

    So modern authors are welcome to tell not show. They just have to realise that they are then writing for an ever-decreasing minority of the population, and this is not something that publishers will be able to publish profitably, so those ‘tell’ authors just won’t get published.

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