Showing… or Telling?

A while back, I got an interesting comment from my editor about a section of a manuscript I’d submitted. Her words were, roughly, “Here, it’s better to tell than show.”

I bring this up because one of the maxims pounded into beginning writers is: “Show; don’t tell.” That means the writer should describe the action as it happens, letting the reader “see” it as it happens, so to speak. In general, that’s good advice, but not everything needs to be shown. Not every step of a fifteen mile march, let alone a hundred mile march, needs to be described. Nor does every part of most love letters need to be read to the reader.

The pertinent wording of a law lends a certain authority if the speaker is an advocate, attorney, or judge… or a trader trying to pull off a shady deal, but what those words are isn’t necessary for a scrivener engaged in copying book after book – unless they bear on the plot specifically or a sentence is used to show how boring the tome truly is.

On the other hand, some excruciating detail in certain situations may be vital. The detailing of woodworking in The Magic of Recluce or of barrel-making in The Wellspring of Chaos are necessary in terms of defining the character and character development of Lerris and Kharl.

And sometimes, there’s no happy medium, as I discovered when Solar Express was published. As a technology-based near-future SF novel, the detail is vital for some readers and drags the story for others, which is why Solar Express is fast-moving for one category of readers and “slloooww” for others. Without the technical detail the story wouldn’t feel real to the first readers, and for those not into such technical intricacies, the details just got in the way. Some readers have been delighted when I’ve gone into the details of food and food preparation…and complained when I didn’t in a later book.

What book was my editor talking about? And what aren’t you ever going to read? I’m not saying. That’s one of the uses of a good editor – to make the book better than it would have been. And I’m not about to show you that it wasn’t as good as it turned out to be.

2 thoughts on “Showing… or Telling?”

  1. Sharon Conboy says:

    I was just reading “Assassins Price”, and missing the food descriptions such as the ones in the earliest of the “Images” series! Maybe they were deemed slow and irrelevant by some readers, but I certainly enjoyed them!

  2. David Sims says:

    I was shopping at the supermarket for groceries with Nancy, when she excitedly waved me over to the meat cooler.

    “Look at this!” Nancy whispered. “They’re charging a dollar less for 17% fat ground beef than they are for 27%.”

    “I’ll be,” I said. “Let’s buy it all.”

    “And take advantage of them!”

    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another customer, a bearded man wearing the casual clothes of a rural dweller, frown. Either he didn’t approve of Nancy’s suggestion about taking advantage of the grocer, or else he was angry that he didn’t spot the opportunity before we did.

    “Now hold on there,” I said, holding up a hand in apparent self-righteousness. “I don’t know anything about marketing. How do we know that the store manager didn’t do this on purpose?”

    “Um. We don’t?”

    “For all we know, the meat department might be trying some clever strategy, and we just don’t know what it is,” I said, pulling meat off the shelf. “And, anyway, we can hardly be blamed for playing the game exactly by rules that they made up themselves.”

    “That’s right!”

    “And even if it is a mistake, it isn’t our mistake,” I continued taking meat packages out of the cooler. “It’s pretty much settled that sellers don’t owe buyers an education in how to spot a genuine bargain from the illusion of one created by the seller’s advertising. So I say that the reverse is also true: when sellers appear to have made an error in their pricing, buyers have no obligation to inform them of it.”

    “It isn’t like we made them do it,” agreed Nancy, beginning to take some of the meat from the cooler herself.

    We picked the counter clean of the absurdly low-priced beef and continued our shopping along Aisle Two.

    (That’s “show.” I can imagine that telling would be more concise, but less interesting.)

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