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Rise of a Disputing Task force: What Exactly is Showing?

Most of the time, people talk about fiction writing as a process of “showing” the readers what the writer sees in her imagination. Is this true altogether? How much showing do you really do in your writing and how much does a reader expect? That’s what we discuss in this blog post. If any professional writer is reading this, I would really appreciate his/her comment in this regard.

There was a forum post I came across recently. In the post, the author had told about a particular novel he read. A best-seller. “Two Americans sat in the café” was the sentence he talked about. And he argued that he couldn’t see those two Americans. There was actually nothing more to show the readers those two Americans.

In order to show the readers them, the writer could have used something like “Two tall, close-shaved, lean sturdy men, one in black jacket and the other in blue were sipping black coffe, sitting opposite each other in the whitewashed square Spanish café. And they carried themselves with such proud that distinguishes Americans from the world.”

Still the sentences don’t show anyone that they are Americans, do they? They may well be British or Australians. How then can you show to your readers two Americans? There is absolutely no way for that. There is no particular characteristic distinguishing an American from the world. There is no particular way of dressing or facial expression that only an American possesses. So, showing your readers Americans is outright impossible. So, what you can’t show, you tell, and the writer did exactly that, without any flamboyancy or wasting space.

Now, here is the first paragraph from John Grisham’s highly successful novel, The Firm.

“The senior partner studied the resume for the hundredth time and again found nothing he disliked about Mitchell Y. McDeere, at least not on paper. He had the brains, the ambition, the good looks. And he was hungry; with his background, he had to be. He was married, and that was mandatory. The Firm had never hired an unmarried lawyer, and it frowned heavily on divorce, as well as womanizing and drinking.”

There is not one sentence that shows you anything. Here I have another piece from Misery by Stephen King.

“As time passed, he became aware that there were periods of non-pain, and that these had a cyclic quality. And for the first time since emerging from the total blackness which had prologued the haze, he had a thought which existed apart from whatever his current situation was. This thought was of a broken-off piling which had jutted from the sand at Revere Beach.”

How much of this is showing to readers? This example is a blend of showing and telling, and the first is mostly telling. Does that mean that they are inept writers, unable to show to their readers what they mean? Not at all. Good writers tell good stories in the most natural way that may or may not include showing.

When I wrote a short story for the first time, the reviews I got included that I was telling the story to the readers more than showing, which I should have done. Here is a piece from an old story of mine.

“However, I don’t think that was enough for me to receive a phone call from a rather obscure science and technology research center in Nevada in the night of 20 December 2005. The man with the coarse and raspy voice that spoke to me told me that his name was Dr. Michael Hahn and he was the director of the sub-atomic research center in the Nevada Institute of Technology, NIT. I looked at the clock on the wall and it said 11:30. I was annoyed at the call and tried amicably to know what he wanted to talk about.”

This is very normal, and nowhere have I faulted from directly telling the story that came to my mind. Being flamboyant with your writing is one thing, and writing normally is quite another. The fact is there is absolutely no such rule as “show your readers.” The only rule in fiction writing is “write with good grammar and punctuation, without which you cannot get published.” Beyond that, success or failure is determined by the style of the writer, the story idea, characterization, dialogs, and many other factors.

Being Flamboyant: A Mistake

If your desire to be extremely flamboyant in your writing to show a situation to the readers is inescapable, that kind of showing not only takes more space, but also wastes a lot of energy. And one important rule of writing is never to tell the readers what is not important. Give them only what can take the story to significant twists. For instance, in a situation you describe about two people, talking sitting in a park bench, you needn’t ever tell “there were blue cars parked in front of the hotel across the street.”

If you wish to intersperse your telling with some showing, then the best means is not interleaving showing snippets like this which don’t stir one bit the storyline, but being more creative with your words, without losing the semantics.

So, good writers write what is important, with some creativity with their words. Above average writers, at least omit what are unimportant. It is the inept writers, who intersperse their writing with all the unimportant things just to be showy or find ridiculous new meanings for their words. You should read this post about semantics of words to find some examples of this kind.

So the whole point here is directly telling the readers your story in your own words, and inserting poetic words and usages only at places that require it. This way, you can show justice to your readers and be loyal to your job.

I call for a discussion in this topic. If you believe against this idea, please post your comments here. If possible, please promote this discussion with the social networking tools. That’s why I put the name as a “Disputing Task Force,” disputing the long-set rule in fiction writing.

History Today

Dante Alighieri, the foremost Italian Poet, and creator of The Divine Comedy was born in 1265.

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008


  1. I definitely have an issue with showing vs. telling. Like you've argued, there's nothing wrong with telling when it's done well. I'm tired of other student writers critiquing my work with "Show don't tell" just because a professor has drilled that mantra into their heads.


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