Category Archives: Show Don’t Tell

When Showing Becomes Tedious

Timmy_Lassie_1961As I’ve mentioned before, fiction writers hear from the start, “Show, don’t tell.” The problem is, good fiction needs both showing and telling. Too much showing, or showing the mundane as well as the important, becomes tedious.

Writers further along on the journey understand this. But showing can be tedious in other ways, too.

Showing is tedious when the action is expected. For example, here’s where they kiss. Or now there will be a car chase. No matter how well a writer shows these scenes, they are tedious because they are predictable. To avoid tedium, showing must present something unexpected.

Showing can also be tedious if the action is a repeat of a similar action that happened earlier in the story. For example, after nearly drowning in the river, Timmy now nearly drowns in the pool. Thank goodness Lassie saved him both times. Yawn! To avoid boring readers, a writer must avoid show repetitive actions.

A third way that showing can be uninteresting is by going on and on and on. The point of showing is to spark the reader’s imagination, not give a blow-by-blow report. A carefully placed detail here, a particular shown there, and a scene unfolds in the mind of the reader. A good deal more that happens in the scene, then, can be communicated through narrative summary.

Here’s an example from Merlin’s Blade, Book 1 the Merlin’s Spiral series by Robert Treskillard:

The arrival of Uther mab Aurelianus, High King of the Britons, would have been a grand affair if not for the somber mood of the people of Bosventor. Oh, the other monks eagerly anticipated the justice they’d receive against the druidow, but the villagers were downright glum. [narrative summary]

One man, whom Dybris hadn’t met during his brief time at the abbey, stood near and complained to those around him, hooting, “A crock o’ ants, he is! Tregeagle cares nothin’ but fer tribute and Uther’ll be the same. You’ll see.”

The others nodded, and an old woman said, “Sh, Uther’ll not care for tributes when he gets a sight o’ our Stone!”

The Stone. What would Uther do with the Stone?

So when the battle horns blasted and people turned to see Uther’s war band rounding the side of the mountain from the east, Dybris prayed for deliverance from the Stone and its curse. [narrative summary]

Merlins_Blade_coverThe principle focus in this scene is on the Stone and what the king will do about it. If the author had shown him riding into the village with his war band rather than summarizing it, the emphasis would have shifted to something less important.

This touches on a fourth way that showing can be tedious. If the story is stalled by a lot of showing, it is boring. In the above scene, readers will be wondering along with the priest Dybris what the king will do about the Stone. If the author uses valuable pages to show something completely different, the reader may be tempted to skip all the “fluff” that isn’t connected to the question the author has raised.

Of course, an important something might delay the story’s forward movement, but the author then needs to give a clear motivation for this delay. Getting caught up in showing a scene simply for the sake of showing, isn’t a good reason.

Showing is certainly an important technique in fiction, without a doubt. But there’s more to showing than we often think and less need of it then we often realize.

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