#58: What Telling and Showing Really Mean

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

After reading your recent post on showing vs. telling, and the examples you drew from Jane Austen (in addition to your many past Austen references) I know you’ll get what I’m going for in my writing! I’m a natural teller, and I love tell-heavy novels. But at some point I have to show SOMETHING, right? That’s where I’m stuck.

Background: After a couple years’ break from writing, I’m attempting a novel. I’ve started novels before (i.e. a few chapters written and then abandoned) and I wrote some very short (and some half-finished) stories in school, but never in my life have I finished a fiction project with a target length of more than five pages. I don’t think this means I’m a short-form writer by nature. I don’t have much interest in writing short stories and only ever wrote them when assigned to in school. In my imagination, I’m drawn to premises that cry out to be novels. In reality, I’ve never successfully executed any of these ideas, maybe because I never had a clue how to go about structuring one of the literary novels I was taught to want to write. (I mean, I do have a literary novel premise I genuinely want to try someday, but I no longer consider lit fic the Holy Grail.)

I decided some months ago to first plan and then write a commercial-ish romance set in the Georgian/Regency period because it’s a genre and broad plot type I know I can imitate (I’m familiar with period writers like Austen, Fanny Burney, and Mary Brunton, as well as the modern Regency romance genre). Initially it was supposed to be sort of a fun, low-stakes practice project—just to prove to myself that I *can* write a novel from start to finish, and to get some down-in-the-dirt *experience* writing one, experience I’d one day apply to writing literary or general fiction. I planned to spend more energy on plot and character development than on prose style. I already know I can make a nice sentence; it’s the structural elements I need to master. So I came up with a premise and sketched a rough plot. But as soon as I started drafting the thing, I realized a) I don’t want or need to choose between awesome prose and awesome plot, duh, and b) oops, this is a passion project. I fall asleep at night tweaking the plot and character relationships in my head. The problem is that now I know what I want to create, I’m still having trouble forging ahead with the execution, just like always. I’m stuck in the first chapter. I do know where the story is going after that, but the draft keeps stalling at the point where overture meets act one. This is exactly the situation I wanted to avoid. I feel so frustrated and afraid of failing yet again.

Things go beautifully when I (or my third-person narrator) am telling instead of showing. It feels right, like singing! The voice comes out pretty close to what I’m striving for (think Austen and Wharton as stylistic influences). Stuff happens. There is conflict. But when I try to shift from having my narrator tell/summarize to writing a real scene, where the pace is supposed to mimic “real” time and characters start acting/speaking onstage, the voice goes stiff and cold. Anything I force out sounds dull, cliché, and anachronistic. To test out my protagonist’s voice, I had her write a letter to a friend, and I love the results. I guess a letter is essentially still “telling,” only in first-person. The same character won’t come to life when I try to put her in a scene with dialogue. For now I’ve fallen back on writing synopsis, which at least gets the words flowing again.

Any idea why my brain is resisting actual scenes? Have I simply not outlined the book thoroughly enough? Maybe my narrator isn’t done setting things up yet, and I’m trying to thrust the characters onstage at the wrong point in the story? I’ve looked for reassurance and inspiration in the writers I admire. There’s no dialogue in Sense and Sensibility until almost 1900 words in. The Age of Innocence logs more than than 3500 words before any true back-and-forth dialogue appears. My draft is in that range. I know I shouldn’t narrate or summarize forever, and at some point the characters have to talk to each other, but how do you know when to employ one technique or the other?

—Eternal Narrator (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.


Story Nurse

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