Putting On Airs

Writers are very used to hearing “show, don’t tell,” right? Well, one of my cornerstone posts is what “show, don’t tell” really means, and, more importantly, why it’s such a big deal. If you haven’t had a chance to read that yet, you can find it here.

Telling your readers about characters or atmosphere in your work is taking away their agency, their participation in the story. Plus, it’s just plain lazy. Really good writing is hard work, and telling is an instant shortcut, but it doesn’t fly with me.

There’s one type of telling that I’ve been noticing a lot of lately. It’s more subtle than the basic “Johnny felt sad” example of telling which you never, ever want to do. Let’s call this new type of telling…atmospheric telling. Here are some examples:

“Well, I never!” he said, with an air of superiority.

An awkward silence filled the classroom as I hunted for my seat. Of course, it had to be in the very back, where the bully awaited me. I could almost swear I saw him lick his chops.

The echoing hallway of the old, abandoned hospital was just plain creepy.

The tone of her voice changed just slightly; there was an edge there now that I hadn’t noticed a moment ago.

Now, once you know what to look for, this is exactly as underwhelming as more obvious telling. Do you get where I’m going with this? In the first example, you’re telling in terms of characterization. This character has been insulted by someone and their tone has shifted and they’re being superior and defensive. I would argue that the dialogue does that work and conveys that without the telling phrase of “with an air of superiority,” so this example is also redundant.

The next two are examples I see all the time. You want to convey the mood of the scene. You need to get across that there’s something in the air, whether it’s awkwardness or fear or a jovial atmosphere. But just because someone tells me that something is awkward or scary or fun, I’m not going to feel it. That’s really the base problem behind all telling. You tell me something and it sort of bounces off of me on a surface level. “Oh, okay, it’s awkward in the classroom,” I think. But at no point does it go deeper, at no point do my toes start to curl because the scene you’re showing me is so uncomfortable, embarrassing, terrifying, creepy, etc. Instead, I’m getting the shortcut, the lazy version, the cop out.

The tone of voice example is also telling. It’s a shortcut to conveying emotion. Next week, I’ll tell you more about why that kind of telling, that which describes vocal tone and also small changes in gesture or facial expression just doesn’t work on the page. But here you’re, in essence, doing just what the writer of the ultimate telling sentence “Johnny felt sad” is doing, only you’re doing it a touch more subtly. If I could rewrite all the examples above and reduce them to their essences, it would read like this:

The king was offended.

Mark felt awkward.

Amy felt scared.

Julie was on edge.

My examples of atmospheric telling are certainly better than the above but they’re still not quite letting go of the telling baby blanket. They’re still only halfheartedly approaching the topic of showing. And they’re both hard to notice and hard to break yourself of. Still, they’re one of those really subtle things that could make a huge difference in your writing. Look for it in your manuscript and I think you will start to see atmospheric telling in many, many places.

So how do we show instead of tell? Use scenework and interiority more. I had a great question posed to me a few weeks ago, and that’s “How do we tell the difference between good interiority (a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, usually narrated to the reader by the character in 1st person or the close 3rd narrator who has access to the character’s head), and telling?” It’s a really higher-order question, and I’ll delve more deeply into it on Wednesday. (Just to get you started thinking in that direction, here’s a post from one of my readers, actually, about when to tell instead of show.)

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  1. Deborah Taylor-French’s avatar

    Thanks for this useful definition and examples. I find short fiction an even greater challenge for showing without confusing my readers.

    I tweeted this post but see now, that although I added my own title, this blog did not count my tweet.

  2. KDuBayGillis’s avatar

    Adding it to the revision checklist. . . thanks!

  3. KellyDhouse’s avatar

    Great post. Looking forward to Wednesday’s higher order answer. Helpful, as always.

  4. Barbara Watson’s avatar

    And I thought I had the show-don’t-tell all figured out. Definitely something I’ll be looking for as I proceed with my WIP. Thank you.

  5. Janelle Weiner’s avatar

    The eager KidLit reader smiled at her computer screen. Could she sit in front of it until Wednesday when the next post would go up? Probably not. And there were definitely revisions she could make before then–one spot in particular where she might have actually used the phrase “something in the air had changed.” Yikes! She sent a huge virtual “thank you” to Mary and opened up her ms.

  6. Zach’s avatar

    So how about something like:

    “Everyone in the classroom stared at me as I hunted for my seat. No one said anything. Just stared. Even the class bully was silent, except for the the slurpy, swishy sound of him licking his chops . . .”

    Personally, I’m a big fan of this old adage, but I always worry that if I don’t tell a little bit, I’ll show too much, so I try to “show” just whatever I think the “essential” thought / feeling / dialogue is . . . (note: I do think in the awkward silence example that the awkward feeling is the “essential,” not the fact that Mary had to be seated by the bully).

    For example, instead of saying “My mom’s stroke bothered me,” I could write the following:

    “Outside, I could see our neighbors gathering around the ambulance. I watched two paramedics pick her up off our old orange couch. The older paramedic looked at the other and said, ‘One, two, three, lift.’ My mom was stammering, trying to put a sentence together. Before they wheeled the gurney away she held her arms out toward me, but the skin on her face was purple and I pushed her arms away.”

    Here, I “tell” you that the couch was old. I also tell you that one parademic was simply older than the other. Part of me always wants to describe the couch, but I resist because my point in this paragraph is to “show” readers how I reacted to my mom after her stroke. I guess my question is, when are you going too far?

  7. EricJ’s avatar

    It’s a balancing act: You can describe someone intentionally trying to create an atmosphere (“…she said, with a superior sniff”), and you can have your first-person narrators aware of the atmosphere around them. (“You could cut the tension in the room with a chainsaw.”)
    Although taking the outside-narrator position of the “with an air of” or “in a (…) manner” does sound a little too dangerously close to Tom Swifty jokes. (“‘I dropped the toothpaste,’ he said, crestfallen.”)

  8. Naomi’s avatar

    Really awesome post Mary! Thank you!!

  9. Beth Hull’s avatar

    I’m guilty of #4. Help! Okay, I’ll come back Wednesday, and again next week. I always do.

  10. Girl Friday’s avatar

    Really useful post, thank you! Examples are always so much more helpful than theory :) (Which I guess makes the showing not telling argument again…)

  11. Rachael Harrie’s avatar

    Very helpful post, thanks Mary! Your examples make it much easier to work out exactly where the line between showing and telling is. Off to add this as a revision step for my MS.

    Rach

  12. Valeria’s avatar

    Definitely something Ill be checking. Cant wait for wednesday ^^

  13. Joanna’s avatar

    This is helpful. I’d really love it if you would rewrite the same four examples using showing, so we can see the difference.

  14. Greta Marlow’s avatar

    One of the reasons this is my favorite blog about writing is because it’s like having a good, tough editor. You always challenge me to make my writing better, in specific ways. I don’t always want to hear what you’re saying, because you’re right, it’s HARD work. But if I’m serious about being the best writer I can be, I can’t take the lazy way out. Thanks for always setting the bar higher! You’re encouraging me to stretch!

  15. Ken Rahmoeller’s avatar

    I appreciate every bit of information you can give on showing vs telling. I’m still having trouble understanding why some writers can get away with lots of telling (Rowling, for example) and no one seems to notice. I did follow your link to the analysis of Rowling’s use of telling, and was intrigued by the idea of “Good Telling” based on a few patterns that Rowling used, but in fact, Rowling did a lot of telling that didn’t fit any patterns at all.

    I wonder if telling worked so well in her books because she was so upfront about it from the beginning. Although many writers want to keep the narrator invisible, Rowling’s stories were written as if the narrator was standing next to you with their hand on your shoulder, making “telling” seem like the most natural thing to do.

  16. Michelle Teacress’s avatar

    A deeper level of show don’t tell – I love it when I learn something new about writing. Thank you for the tip. Now I need to improve my abilities to recognize this problem when I see it.
    Have a great evening.

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