Michael Knost was the guest of honor at the Imaginarium writing convention I attended last weekend. I took his workshop on “showing versus telling” and he said that about 95% of writers misunderstand that phrase. I was definitely one of those 95%!
I used to think “telling” was really just relaying the story in a boring way to the readers. Like writing, “Eric went to the courthouse. He filed the lawsuit. Then he went home. Blah Blah Blah.”
But no, that is actually “showing” because someone watching me would actually see those things. It might not be great “showing,” but it’s still “showing.”
For any sports fans out there, Knost used an analogy that really explained the differences well. He used it throughout his entire workshop.
Imagine “showing” as the play-by-play announcer. They focus on what happens. They describe the action, sometimes in vivid detail. “Eric steps up to the mound. Eric kicks the dirt and adjusts himself. Then he steps out and takes a few swings. Etc Etc.”
He said the color announcer does all the “telling,” which is all the analysis, history, etc., that fans would NOT see/hear/feel while watching the game. “Eric is only batting .200 against this pitcher this year, but he’s been battling a thumbnail injury all season. The pitcher has a strong fastball and likes to keep his strongest stuff inside.”
Then he applied the analogy to a text. For example.
Eric went to the courthouse. (showing) Eric filed the lawsuit. (showing) The lawsuit would change the landscape of the local legal community for years to come, as it named dozens of attorneys and judges as co-conspirators in a massive fraud ring to devalue personal injury claims in the city. (telling) Eric made many powerful enemies by taking this step, but he didn’t care. He loved making enemies, the more powerful, the better. (telling)
So whenever you insert backstory, analysis, etc., you are telling. And it’s almost impossible to tell a story without telling, because authors frequently use telling to transition from scene to scene, skip over what would be boring parts of a narrative, etc. TV writers can use things like flashbacks, visuals, actors’ tone of voice, etc., to fill in the blanks, but with prose, many times it’s more effective to just insert some telling and then get on with the story (paraphrasing Knost here).