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Show Versus Tell: The Irresistible Novel

I’m seven weeks into my journey through the book The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke. Thus far, we have examined some major principles of writing under the microscope of what works with your individual writing voice and what publishers and agents look for in a manuscript. Today’s topic seems like a no brainer for many writers, but is actually a hot topic debated in many settings by writers across all genres. I’m just here to present the arguments according to Gerke and in the section below entitled, “My Current Project” you can see my personal opinions based on my writing (but not prescriptive for all writers.)


Show Versus Tell

Let us begin with defining what it means to show versus what it means to tell.

Telling: “Jim was a jerk.”

Showing: “Jim came home, kicked the dog, stiff armed the toddler, dropped his muddy boots on the couch, put his feet up on the coffee table and shouted, ‘Woman, where’s my beer?'” (Gerke 51)

The rule that Gerke is attempting to illustrate in this chapter is that: “Telling is bad, and showing is better; telling will prevent your novel from being published.” (Gerke 51)

Most of our lives we communicate through the mode of telling. We use exposition, summary and direction to get our points across and for the most part (if we are word conscious) we are successful in this form of communication. Some authors also choose to write in this manner. It is reflective of the way we think and speak in our lives and so seems more natural when it comes to penning a story.

However, many writers are against the use of the previous technique in writing. In the first example above about Jim we first have the telling of Jim as a jerk. It gets the point across, but requires very little of the reader. In the second example instead of just giving a detail away the author requires reader engagement to establish that Jim is a jerk. The reader is able to visualize and feel what it is like to know that character and is able to jump to the conclusion that he is a jerk on their own. Most writers tend to be on the side of the argument that values showing in writing over telling because it creates an attachment to the story for the reader that may otherwise not be formed if the novel is simply written as though it was being narrated.

There are success stories out there, though. Occasionally scenes of telling may become necessary in the writing of a novel. Gerke offers a few instances when those scenes are likely to be overlooked based on reader engagement with the plot and the desire to know something quickly.

My Current Project…

I realize as I read through early drafts of my novel that I used quite a bit of the telling technique. From what I’ve gathered from this book and authors that isn’t unusual. The first time you sit down to craft a story is like an information dump. You know what you want to say as far as the what, but you aren’t completely sold on the how. So you sit down and you write. The editing process is where you catch all of these pockets of telling in the narrative. And trust me, my pockets pop up everywhere.

I understand the value of showing in my writing and part of my editing process means taking those information dumps and making them more illustrative. It prolongs the process and requires creativity and flexibility, but in the end it will be worth it. You will have built a world full of characters that your readers feel close and connected to. It’s all about those connections when it comes to publishers and agents as well.

It is with great effort that I’m trying to dispel all telling from my manuscripts.


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