Monday 28 January 2013

Maureen says, 'Show Not Tell.'

By Maureen Lynas

Look, I'm cross. Can't you tell?
Do I have to actually spell it out for you!

I once attended an excellent weekend course run by Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. Each day was split into sessions based on plot, character, settings etc. and all was well until we reached the session on ‘Show Not Tell’ Blank looks all round. Explanations were given. Examples were given. But blank looks persisted. In the end, the tutor had to say, ‘One day you’ll all shout ‘eureka’ and the light bulb will click on.’

And she was right. But it took a while.

So now, in my own unique way I shall attempt to light up that light bulb for anyone who is struggling with the concept.

It’s all to do with The Gap

What’s The Gap? asked the reader who did not know.

Well, The Gap is the bit of the book that the reader writes. It’s the bit you leave for the reader to fill with their knowledge of the world, relationships, emotions, culture, history etc, etc. All of their experiences are brought to your book and they use their knowledge and ability to infer, and gather meaning from the text.

Okay (I hear you say slowly, possibly) but what does this have to do with Show Not Tell?
Allow me to give an example of Show with a shameless plug for my book Florence and the Meanies – Cupcake Catastrophe. 

Mrs Meanie dashed into the drawing room shrieking, ‘I have news! Girls! I have news!’ 

She hung her cloak on Florence’s head as if Florence was a coat stand. Then she took a deep breath and shrieked again.

‘Oh, my clever little darlings. Oh, my pretty little pictures! You will never guess what’s about to happen in Cobbleton!’ She flopped onto a chair and fanned herself with a piece of paper. ‘Go on, guess!’

Now, bring your gap to my story. What can you infer? Who’s the protagonist? Who’s the antagonist? Cast of characters? Age range? Genre? Time? Relationships? Emotional state? Can you anticipate a number of scenarios for what is about to happen in Cobbleton?

I’ll just wait a bit. So you can have a think.
And a bit longer.

I’ll add in some unnecessary Telling.

Mrs Meanie dashed quickly into the drawing room shrieking loudly, ‘I have news! Girls! I have news!’ She was very excited. 

She hung her cloak on Florence’s head, as if Florence was a coat stand. She’s always horrible to me, thought Florence, unhappily.

Then, she took a deep breath and shrieked again. It was loud. ‘Oh, my clever little darlings. Oh, my pretty little pictures!' Mrs Meanie really loved her daughters. 'You will never guess what’s about to happen in Cobbleton!’ Mrs Meanie had just found out a prince was coming to Cobbleton and she was so excited she could hardly wait for  Armeenia and Philomeena, to guess. She flopped onto a chair and fanned herself with a piece of paper, because she was exhausted. ‘Go on, guess!’ she cried impatiently.

Hopefully you’ll already have inferred most of the info I’ve added as telling. Maybe not the bit about the prince coming but I bet you didn’t anticipate dinosaurs, aliens or cowboys.

One big area to avoid is Telling about the emotions of the characters.

‘Florence’s father is about to return,’ said Armeenia, with a nasty smirk.

Florence knew Armeenia was just saying it to be cruel. Then she thought, but what if that’s a letter in Mrs Meanie’s hand, and what if it is from my father, and what if he is on his way!

‘Goodness me, no,’ said Mrs Meanie.

I knew it wasn’t, thought Florence. I knew it. She scratched her nose and looked out of the window, blinking back a tear.

Do I really need to say - what if he is on his way, thought Florence hopefully, or - blinking back a tear because she was sad.

A few paragraphs in and Cupcake Catastrophe provides a very useful example of how writing can work on two levels of The Gap.

Armeenia, the eldest daughter, was the pointiest person in the world. Her long black hair came to a point at the end of her ponytail and her nose was as pointy as a pencil point.

But Philomeena was round, and squidgy and completely pointless, with a head full of yellow ringlets that looked just like hairy springs.

The phrase completely pointless is the phrase I want to point out to make an important point of pointiness. It can be read on two levels.
On a literal level, it’s saying Philomeena has no physical points, unlike Armeenia. But on another level, a person with the ability to infer could read that there is no point to Philomeena. She may as well not exist.
A child might read it literally but an adult might get the joke or/and the point.

And that’s the introduction to my next pointy point which is to do with Age, The Gap and Show Not Tell.

I’ve witnessed children drooling over Working Partners Beast Quest books and it’s been a source of puzzlement. When I read them I was amazed at how little Showing and how much Telling there was. I struggled to understand their popularity. Until I started thinking about The Gap, and age, and reading ability. Cue another light bulb and another flick of the switch, please.   

Children are only able to fill Small Gaps. Sometimes, if their life experiences are very limited, they cannot fill Any Gap.

This was so flaming obvious I’m quite embarrassed not to have made the connection sooner. But I have never found that point being made anywhere so had to wait until my neurons and synapses got together and shouted, Aha!

First of all, children have limited knowledge and experience of the world, people, emotions etc. So their ability to infer is less than an adult. Also, children are doing many things when reading a book. They are accessing key words from the ever growing (hopefully) lexicon of words recognised, and matching them to words understood. They’re building some words phonically and storing them in the lexicon so they don’t have to word-build every word, every time. They’re learning the meaning of punctuation. They’re keeping the words in their heads until they get to the end of the sentence and then they’re checking it for meaning. Have they got it right, does it make sense?
So, if they’re not quite ready to infer beyond the literal and want a bit of Telling in the books they read for fun it’s hardly surprising. Bring on the Beast Quests and the Rainbow Magic. And give the kids a break.

But, I have one more very important point of pointiness to make.

Because they have Small Gaps children’s fiction has illustrations to help them to make connections and develop understanding. But that doesn’t mean the illustrations have to Tell either. A point that world-famous award-winning  Shaun Tan made very clearly, when he introduced me to the concept of The Gap at Seven Stories. (Not just me, there was a room full of folk hanging on every word)
“… I often like to think of words and images as opposite points on a battery, creating a potential voltage through a ‘gap’ between telling and showing. It requires the reader’s imagination to complete the circuit …”Shaun Tan

So, there you have it. But if you think you've 'got it' then think on this from the brilliant  James Scott Bell.

 "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."

Such a lot to learn!


Maureen Lynas also blogs on her own blog which she creatively named - Maureen Lynas


  1. You make an interesting and valid point about showing and telling. I guess that the balance between the two ends up being based on what will suit your readership, your genre and what is happening at that point in your story.
    I have my kindle app at the ready and am looking forward to downloading your story.

    1. Thanks, Amanda. And I haven't forgotten about your appearance on the funEverse, I'll be emailing you this week, sorry it's taken me longer than expected.

    2. No problem Maureen. I wasn't expecting to hear from you so soon - whenever you are ready is fine.

  2. Thank you very much, Maureen. Another peice to print out and pin on my board. I, too, having been struggling with the amount of telling I see in successful books, despite overwhelming advice against it and the exhausting nature of reading (and writing) scenes that unremittingly show. James Scott Bell - write on.

    1. Hi, Rowena :) James Scott Bell is one of the masters of 'How To' isn't he.

  3. Tremendously useful, Maureen - thank you. As a writer on BEAST QUEST I'm always particularly intrigued by what makes them so successful, as they aren't the most entertaining books to write. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of our audience and not get too uppity about stating the obvious!

    1. I'd love it if I had a Beast Quest book in my portfolio, the kids have such enthusiasm for them. They have their place in a child's journey to become an independent reader.

  4. Brilliant piece on showing not telling! And folks, I've read Florence and I can guarantee you a wonderful read!

  5. Great post, said Ros admiringly.

    1. 'WoW! Thanks!' said the author of the blog, excitedly. Because she really was pleased that Ros had admired the post.

  6. Thanks for this really useful post, Maureen. I've often wondered why my daughter loved the Beast Quest books so much, apart from the wonderfully-collectable cards at the end. Maybe a reason why Enid Blyton has been so popular, too? Does this mean we should add a bit of telling every now and then so younger children can understand?

    1. Hi Anna, I tried to find some samples from Dahl where he'd shown, then confirmed what he'd shown by adding a little bit of telling. I'd spotted them last year, but I didn't have time to do the research. Also I've noticed that good illustrations often confirm the showing. So children know they were on the right track with their interpretation of the text. Interesting subject isn't it?

  7. GREAT post, Maureen! Thank you so much. In the past I've held back on 'telling' in my novel for fear of being 'reprimanded' ;0) but have been realising recently (through studying other books) that some telling is not only ok but essential (for the reasons you describe above - although I hadn't really thought about how the child's limited life experiences affected this - that is pure GENIUS). Although my MS has received positive feedback from industry professionals, I've known it's not quite right - a bit 'empty' and so I'm cracking on with another redraft, this time allowing myself to TELL a bit *shakes in fear*.

    I've been thinking a lot about personal 'points of reference' - the stuff that fills the gap/what the reader knows - and experimenting with what I can add to help the reader with what they don't know (particularly in creating a sense of place), but whilst redrafting I've been constantly angsting that I'm going to get my hand slapped for 'telling'.

    I'm having to learn sleight of hand. The middle ground. Trusting myself to tell without TELLING. Allowing myself a 'few sips' of telling rather than total abstinence. It's scary!

    Your post has just validated what I've been thinking in my study on my own. Thanks so much. I feel a weight lifted off my shoulders :0)

    1. Thanks Emma :)
      I used to live in fear of the 'Show Not Tell Police' too. I think one of the tricks is to pick a novel that you absolutely love and analyse how that author has balanced showing and telling. Then you'll have a guideline that suits you. Maybe the book's pace comes from that balance.

      Glad to hear I've lightened the load!

  8. Thanks Maureen, your posts are always so useful.

  9. This was a wonderfully instructive article. As an illustrator/author, I tend to think visually. I believe the examples you've given are going to really stick with me. Thank you!

    1. My pleasure, Sue, The triangle of words, pictures and gap is fascinating to me. I wish my illustration skills were good enough to do the whole thing myself. Maybe one day.

  10. This is a great post, and what an insight into the cursed Rainbow Fairies (I will give my poor daughter a break now and allow her to read them without my judgement!)

    I think that 'telling' is the biggest mistake that people make when writing a picture book, especially if they are not illustrators as well - they forget that the words and illustrations should work together. Hence 'Dan's room was large with lots of toys lying on the floor' is so unnecessary and slows the story down. When I wrote my picture books I always tried to see them as I wrote, plus I was given invaluable guidance by the wonderful Verna Wilkins.

    (The example is a really bad one, but it's off the top of my head and I'm not patient enough to go and find a proper one!)

  11. Ah, happy times ahead for your daughter :) Until she gets bored and moves on.
    The example makes sense, Lucy. If you can see it, you don't need to write it.

  12. Great post, thanks! I have heard that you can tell a bit more in picture books, and your post explains so clearly why.

    1. Sylvia, picture books are different to the series reads where telling is used more. In a book like Rosie's Walk there seems to be a lot of telling in the text, but none of the story is told. The pictures show the story. It's a brilliant example of the words, pictures and the gap working together.
      You can actually have less telling in a picture book and more showing not just because the illustrations play their part but because there is usually an adult there to help the child interpret the story. That's why adult/child interaction during reading pb's is vital.

  13. This explanation/demonstration of why we shouldn't "tell" is very pointy indeed.

  14. Maureen, you're a star - she said, fawningly. The issue of the gap being different for different ages really is an important point - and so nicely put. I still struggle enormously with this.

    And of course *donning her neuroscience teacher hat for a moment* well done for identifying that it's the synapse where communication between the neurones happens. It's getting information across this GAP, the synaptic cleft, that's the key thing. Well done - you did realise that's what you were doing, didn't you? The GAP's the thing!

    1. Hahahahaha! You big show off in your big hat! I did know it, I did!, said Maureen smugly. Big hug, Louise.

  15. Maureen, you are an excellent teacher. The concept of The Gap is brilliant and I just read Louise's comment about synapses which confirms it.
    Great post and I do like Florence's cover. Thank you.

  16. Awesome, Maureen. I am always struggling with showing and telling, and it's hard to recognize it at times. I like your explanation and your examples are very clear. Thanks!


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