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Thursday, May 5, 2011

8. Dialog versus Narrative - Show versus Tell (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 8 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series (NEW: Buy the book HERE).

8. Dialog versus Narrative - Show versus Tell
It’s very tempting when you’re writing your novel to spend a lot of time describing exactly what is going to happen or what the reason is for something. Sometimes for pages and pages! I’m sure you’ve read those sorts of novels before. Did you know this is called ‘telling’ in the writing business? Let me give you a brief example:
Tom was worried about turning up unannounced at Steve’s house, especially at this time of the afternoon. He knew it was getting late and Steve was never too happy to receive visitors once the sun went down. And what with the events of the previous day, he was probably going to be in even more of a foul mood. Tom hated it when Steve got like that. There was just no talking to him. Still, he was going to have to go and see him. He owed him that much at least. 
Tom picked up a copy of the daily paper just in case Steve hadn’t seen it and stuffed it into his pocket. This would at least give him something to talk about when he got there. He collected his keys from the side table, pulled the door shut behind him and walked up the street towards Steve’s house.
There’s nothing wrong with this example per se, it gets the point across and tells the reader exactly what Tom is going to do and why he is going to do it. The only problem is that sometimes it can get a little boring constantly reading sections of a book that just tell what is going on, or going to happen. Readers like to live in the present and be shown exactly what is happening. So, instead of the previous passage, how about writing something like the following:
As the sun began to set later that evening, Tom knocked on the door of Steve’s house and waited for it to be opened. “Hi, Steve,” he said as the barest crack in the door opened up. “I know you don’t like visitors at this time of day, but there are a couple of things I wanted to talk to you about.” 
Steve poked his head out of the door and took a brief look up and down the street. “I guess you’d better come in then.” He took a step back and pulled open the door to allow Tom to pass by and then immediately slammed it shut behind him. “Why the crap are you here?” 
Tom stopped and turned around and watched as Steve’s expression changed again and Steve sank back against the door, almost collapsing to the floor. “You alright?” Tom asked. “I really didn’t want to disturb you but I didn’t know if you’d seen the paper or not?” 
“Well you’re here now. You might as well say what you came to say.” 
Tom pulled the newspaper from his pocket and handed it over to Steve. “Just thought you might want to see this.” 
“Right.” Steve took the newspaper and opened it up. “Holy crap! All over the front page.” Steve balled up his free hand and punched the door behind him.
This version of the passage gives the reader a good idea of exactly how Steve is feeling and why Tom is worried about going over to his house. But because it’s set in the present time and not a theoretical passage, it’s much easier to read.

Readers of books generally don’t need to be told what is going to happen or why things are the way they are. Usually they can get it from the setting and the content of the scene. Generally readers actually prefer to work things out for themselves! So, when you are writing and want to write about the reasons why something is the way it is, try and think of another way to put it. Trying to wrap the section around some dialog that moves the plot forward, shows the reader what people are thinking and generally gets the point across. You will be thanked for it.

In conclusion, it’s not a bad thing to have passages of tell from time to time. Telling can transition a story and move it from A to B very quickly at times when you don’t want to get bogged down with things. But using telling to signal something to the reader that they could otherwise work out for themselves is not a good technique.

Remember the old adage that ‘actions speak louder than words’? Well this is what it’s about! Showing the reader what is happening and letting them become involved is a much more powerful technique than just telling them what is happening and why it is happening. So, give it a try. Dialog versus narrative, show versus tell. Write a passage and give the reader the chance to work things out for themselves!


  1. Ah, yes. The dreaded information dump., not always... usually better to find another way of getting your fiction point across. Good post!

  2. Well said, couldn't agree more. Nice work. I'll be keeping this firmly in mind today.

  3. "Do you think this article helped you in your quest to improve your writing, Mr. Rotterman?"

    "Yes, Harry, it confirms my belief in the use of heavy dialog. Many thanks to Mr. Dorset for the inspiration."

  4. Ah, the Terry Goodkind versus Michael Crichton battle of the pen.
    Very good point here. I agree that too much of either tends to make me start skimming over passages. Thanks for this post.

  5. Will be sharing this with my 8th graders, some who haven't a clue about showing vs. telling. Excellent, excellent, excellent!

  6. Excellent advice for a pesky writing problem!