Four Ways to Plan Showing Vs. Telling in Your Novel

As writers, we’ve been told over and over how it’s much better to show a reader something rather than tell them, and recently, I wrote about how one can use dance to show a character’s thoughts and how she changes.

As a general rule, showing means giving the reader details: letting them see what the characters are seeing, hear what they’re hearing, and be “along for the ride” for whatever they’re doing.

Find your way by Jacky

It can be overdone, of course. Giving us every detail as they cross the room, sit somewhere and wait, wash their dishes or eat their food would probably be overkill, as the details would bog down most plots, but in general, letting us have a front-row-seat is favored over having the narrator tell us what happened, how they matured, or what they’re like.

But how do you make a story that gives you opportunities to show things like a character’s growth, her thought processes, and how she feels about those around her? If it’s told in the first person, the narrator could just come out and say, “I realize that I care for ___” or “I suddenly understand that I’m not the person I once was,” but that would be telling.

How do you plan showing?

  • Set up contrasts. Have your character respond to a similar, but worse, situation later in the plot. Not only does it up the stakes, plotwise, but it gives you a chance to explore the character’s feelings by showing how they handle it. If getting the wrong sort of drink bothered them at the beginning, show how they handle no food at all towards the end. If they were afraid of heights, show them climbing something enormous later in the story, but make sure the growth is believable.

This was used Divergent rather effectively, I thought, as part of Tris’ training was facing her fears and so we saw her start with little problems that got worse as the book went on, giving us a chance to see how she grew. It also helped make the great things she was capable of later believable, but she still wasn’t invincible. There were still things that scared her, which prevented the change from being implausible.

  • Use side characters. Those around your main character who have known them for some time are a great source of information, as they can talk to the main character or others and comment about how he has changed and how he seems to like a certain character now.

This happened in the original Star Wars trilogy, as many characters commented to Han about his feelings for Leia, giving him a great opportuinity to deny the truth and in denying it, show us where he was in processing his own feelings (shock, denial, acceptance, admittance, etc.).

  • Repeat a situation exactly. This technique can work, but you have to watch that you don’t overuse it. If your story starts out with a husband and wife walking along the beach, talking, have the wife take that same walk later after her husband has died and you’ll have a great opportunity to show how very different her life and feelings are (and likely, the makings of a very poignant scene). Or have a ceremony be repeated. A going-to-bed routine that remains exactly the same, but now, there’s a new baby, or a pet, or an assassin in the house that keeps changing how things play out.

They did this in The Lord of the Rings, as Pippin and Merry sang the exact same song in Theoden’s hall as they had sung at the beginning, in the Shire (in the extended version, at least), but in the second version, Pippin is distracted and forgets his last line because he’s preoccupied with the seeing stone that he retrieved and gave to Gandalf.

  • Force your character to face the very area they need to grow in. This is fairly standard practice, but it bears repeating. If your story is about how your main character grows up and become responsible, construct the plot around throwing her into situations where she needs to take charge and handle things. If it’s about how he comes to enjoy children, then surround him with children. Whatever the character arc, constantly look for ways to weave that into the events of the plot, but don’t overdo it.

An example of this is found in Pride and Prejudice, as much of the plot is about how Elizabeth and Darcy interact with and interpret people. Thus, the whole book is centered on them dealing with people. It doesn’t take place anywhere lonely or desolate, but in cities and houses where they’re constantly being introduced to new characters and having to interact and interpret accordingly. Similarly, Mansfield Park is about belonging, and so Fanny Price gets to go to a variety of homes, and eventually, to her family’s home, to where she thinks she belongs, only to find out that she actually is most at home at Mansfield Park, the place where she’d seen herself as an outsider for so long.

Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren

Image by Jacky, Creative Commons

5 thoughts on “Four Ways to Plan Showing Vs. Telling in Your Novel

  1. I like your description of Mansfield Park as being about belonging! Which perhaps accounts for why the romance is really of secondary importance and is only dealt with briefly at the end…the ultimate result of her belonging?


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