View Full Version : Summary and Detail -- A New Look at Showing vs. Telling

August 8th, 2008, 08:41 AM
This is an article which originally appeared in the Black Velvet Seductions Writers Newsletter (http://www.blackvelvetseductions.com/Newsletter%20Sign%20Up.html). I am including it here as those who are submitting exercises will notice that I often address showing versus telling in terms of whether the details are summarized. This article should act as kind of a supplemental piece of information on that topic.

Black Velvet Seductions Writers Newsletter (http://www.blackvelvetseductions.com/Newsletter%20Sign%20Up.html)is free and you can subscribe to it by visiting the newsletter subscription page (http://www.blackvelvetseductions.com/Newsletter%20Sign%20Up.html).

In the newsletter you will find lots of articles on various aspects of writing in general and writing romance specifically. The writers newsletter archive (http://www.blackvelvetseductions.com/Black%20Velvet%20Seductions%20Writers%20Newsletter %20Archive.html)page includes articles from previous newsletters.

Without additional blah-blah, here is the article. :)

Summary and Detail -- A New Look at Showing vs. Telling

One of the top reasons editors reject manuscripts is
because the author relates the story in a flat and
unexciting way. One of the key things that can make
even an exciting plot seem dull is telling the story rather
than showing it.

Though as writers we’ve had the words “show don’t tell”
engraved on our collective and individual conscious-
nesses, knowing the words themselves and being able to
put the advice into practical application are two different

To begin with the terms “showing” and “telling” are
themselves confusing. For the purposes of this article we
will look at the concepts of showing and telling
differently than we normally do.

The crucial difference between showing and telling is
that telling summarizes information into processed bites
in which the author has already communicated a
conclusion. For example, “He was a worried looking
man of about 50” summarizes EVERYTHING. As
readers we know he looks worried. We know he is about 50.
We don’t know what facial expressions or what actions
make him look worried. We’ve been fed a processed bite.
We’ve been told.

By contrast, showing provides the details and allows the
reader to draw conclusions. In the example, “He looked
over his shoulder, his brows drawing low as he darted
into the dark alley. He pressed against the brick building
running a gloved hand through thick waves of silver,
hoping he’d made the slip.“ In the second example the
author has conveyed worry and has conveyed an older
man but they have left it up to the reader to process the

By remembering that telling summarizes details into
processed bites and showing provides the raw
unprocessed details authors have a clearer vision of what
to look for when looking for the pesky sections of telling
that often result in hasty rejections.

There are some places where it is acceptable to tell
things, however that is something that needs to be
weighed and measured and fitted to the particular story in

Some good rules of thumb for when telling might be ap-
propriate are:

When summarizing a span of time or distance in
which nothing important to the story occurs. As in,
“it was three days before…” In this context the
telling serves as a transition.

When a story element has already been covered in
detail in an earlier portion of the story. For exam-
ple, “Ron remembered the accident in vivid detail.”
If the author has already described the events of the
accident in detail and without summarization in an
earlier part of the story the reader will remember
the important details with only minimal reminder.

When an element is not central to the story but pro-
vides motivation for a minor character. For exam-
ple, “Ron knew what he was asking would be diffi-
cult for Kelly given her abusive childhood.”

Some places where it is not a good idea to tell are:
When hero and heroine meet for the first time. In
the romance genre first meetings are very important
and they need to be shown with a high degree of

Important story elements which are being covered
for the first time.

Incidents which show the conflict between hero
and heroine.

Memories and backstories which provide motiva-
tion for primary characters. These work well done
in a flashback written with rich detail.

Important events within the story. Rather than sum-
marizing a whole event try honing in on the spe-
cific part of the event that is important to the story
and describing that part in deep detail.

Writers should get into the habit of looking for areas of
summarization within their work and should then give
careful consideration to the areas they find. Making
wise choices about where to summarize and where to
provide rich detail will help authors to snare the posi-
tive attention of readers and editors alike.

Jean Kelli
August 11th, 2008, 11:50 AM
Wonderful, this is very helpful. And with that in mind, I'm off to write....