Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.
One of the great lies of writing instruction is “show don’t tell.” The truth is, you’ll need both. Here’s a quick primer, and an activity to help you to understand and use showing and telling.
Showing is a catchier way of saying “in scene.” When we write in immediate scene, the action is happening on the page. If you’re writing dialogue, you’re in scene. If you want the reader to experience the moment, write in scene.
Telling is another way of saying “summary.” When we write in summary, we’re explaining. You will write in summary when you need to speed up time or to describe events or give information that doesn’t have to happen in real time. A good hint: when there is unnatural dialogue—two characters telling each other things they already know for the reader’s benefit (“Well, brother, I know we’ve been estranged since Dad died and Mom ran off with the church organist…”)—that’s a good sign it should have been told in summary.
It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. This can be true even in a single paragraph, where some of what happens is live and some is summarized.
Here’s your prompt for the week, adapted from Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, which is used as the textbook in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.
- Think about something you witnessed in the past week or month. You could be a bystander or involved in the event.
- Take 15 minutes to write a pure narration (telling) version of the event.
- Take another 15 minutes and re-write the event using only immediate scene (showing).
- Write a version that combines the parts that are best shown and those that are best told.