Archive Post – The Difference between Showing and Telling

Every ´How to´ book on the market that attempts to guide a young writer through the process of writing has at least this element in common – they all insist that one must SHOW the reader what is happening instead of TELLING the reader.  It is a mystery and part of the process that a novelist must learn in order to write something that readers are going to care about.

If find that this theme is very closely connected to the idea of the back-story.  How to get the exposition into the plot in a subtle way.  There is just no easy way to do it.  Also closely connected to this idea is exactly where you start your story.  If everything that happens in your story is a direct line from A to Z, it is recommended that you start your story somewhere around G.

So this makes A to F your back-story.  If it is necessary to make the story understood and to give the motivations for your characters, then you´ll have to get it in there somehow.  It is also said that a story follows a simple line – from how things are or were at the beginning of your story to the conflict … to the resolution and to a new reality for your characters and possibly for their setting.

With all this in mind, I return to the SHOWING versus TELLING dilemma.   I´ve mentioned a few times that I realize that my first attempt at a novel was somewhat flawed.  I am really ok with the fact that I didn´t start with some dramatic Inciting Incident as is the modern norm.  A lot of fiction doesn´t do that and in my opinion is still readable.  Then again, I am an avid reader and at times enjoy the mystery of ´what the hell is going on´ and ´what is going to happen´ instead of being spoon-fed the whole thing on the first page.  If it´s too easy to understand, I´m bored.

So my novel LOBO started out with a Prologue.  Some dislike prologues.  Whatever.  Can´t please all the people all of the time.  I have no problem with them.  Hell, it´s just chapter one called something else.

Where I messed up is in the Telling instead of Showing.  Chapter 1 (after the prologue in which we get a hint of things to come) starts with Padre Miguel sitting on the back stairs of the priest´s residence on the hillside of La Loma Larga hill.  He´s overlooking the city and dreading the events that are to come later that day – a funeral.

So the narrator (3rd person) is relating Padre Miguel´s thoughts about the funeral he has to preside over.  This was my mistake.  It would have been a lot better if:

A.  He had looked down the hill to see the coffins being unloaded from the back of a hearse and taken into the church.

B.  If he had some kind of flyer in his hand with the names of the deceased.

There are probably a few other things I could have done at that point to make it more real, visceral and to have gotten out of Padre Miguel´s head.  Any time you filter the events through your character´s 5 senses, you are breaking the Telling Trap and getting into the showing.  Thinking about an event sucks.  Thinking about the past in order to get the back-story in just sucks.  Thank god I was able to get past that part of the story quickly.  In other cases the back-story came in via conversations between characters which I guess is more acceptable.  And there is a HUGE back-story going on for the first half of the novel.  Almost everything that happens is because of things that happened in the past.

Chalk it up to beginners luck, good or bad.

So there you have it.  My two cents on what most of us do wrong in our early attempts at writing a novel.

I guess when that big contract comes down the pike I´ll resurrect LOBO and rewrite it (a bit….not too much ….. not likely to conform 100% to an editor´s demands but…..)

I still believe that it´s a novel worth reading regardless of these slight flaws.  Hopefully the 10 reviews on Amazon are indicative of how people feel about the book.  After all, we are our own worst and harshest critics.

David Gordon Burke
Find my Books here at Amazon.  


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