The Writing Process: Telling, not Showing


A friend recently commented that my second book of Rhino contained a lot of telling rather than showing. I have been told enough about “show, not tell” to be disturbed by committing such a writing faux pas; “telling, not showing” is something to be avoided like the deus ex machina plague. I felt obliged to revise the manuscript into more showing, less telling, but then I happened to read The Ruined Cottage by William Wordsworth. I was immediately drawn into the nearly “all-tell” story written by a master storyteller.

The story itself is simple: rise, and then fall, a person vs. fate conflict. It’s very familiar. It could be anyone’s story, and that is one of the reasons it is so compelling. It is easy to empathize with the main character; in fact, I think many people would sympathize, having been through a similar experience. When one tells the story of humanity, one does not need a lot of “show.” Our common journey through Life fills in the details with personal experience. When I read a well written “tell”, my own memories show me what it looks like.

The other reason The Ruined Cottage is a literary masterpiece is because of how it is put together. It’s like the scene from the movie Apollo 13 in which the engineers had to figure out how to turn the power back on. The process involved a set of switches—I think about six—that had to be engaged in a particular order. For six switches that is 720 distinct possibilities. The engineers kept trying different combinations until they found the right one.

In the same way, Wordsworth uses a set of familiar words to tell his story. There is nothing complicated or convoluted in the narration. It is just the simple tale of a woman whose husband has gone to war. Many stories have a similar theme. But in Wordsworth’s hands, the story is compelling; he found the right combination of words to make the magic. For all its telling, The Ruined Cottage never devolves into a news report.

(Note: In my opinion, a great deal of what passes for story-telling is merely news reporting. Perhaps this is why people are so fussed about “fake news”—the line between it and “fake stories” is no longer sharply defined.)

In the end, I decided not to revise the manuscript, but that is another story.

(Note to self: Are there other literary examples of telling, not showing? Do other people see some novels as news reports?)


5 thoughts on “The Writing Process: Telling, not Showing

  1. Well-executed novels are, of course, legitimate news reports from their own time. I believe the almost-cliche by now advice to “Show, don’t tell” is a product of the very modern school of thought about how to write developed through the “Writing Workshop” mentality and schools that have sought to teach the commodification of writing. As with all advice, it’s best applied selectively. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but there are endless examples of writing that tells more than it shows, especially within the canon of pre-20th century literature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you about well-executed novels being news reports from their own time. I believe that is true, and I even wrote about it, but I forgot that I think that. Thanks for reminding me. Your post is a great example of how the blogging community helps each other.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree with Denny. The few times where I find telling annoying is when a character is attributed various personality traits that the plot, the characters thoughts and actions do not reflect. In these cases, as a reader, I feel conned and a little bit as if I’ve completely missed the point when in reality the author hasn’t conveyed the traits effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

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