Showing Not Telling in Writing


Explanations are a particularly unnecessary style of telling. It’s likely that you know by now that both showing and telling are necessary in fiction. But explanations are often the kind of telling that should instead be shown. Or even worse, they might be telling that has already been shown but is being told as well.


If you’ve shown the reason a character does something—typically in reaction to another event—then you don’t also have to tell why the character did it. The showing is sufficient. Readers will catch on. And if they see that you’re explaining as well, they will notice. They’ll notice you, the author, meddling.


Explanations are intrusions into the story world from the outside-the-world author, the author who is worried about the mechanics of the story. The author worried that the reader won’t be able to keep up. But instead of the author showing up to explain, characters worried about the events of the story should be the ones reacting in ways that declare their reasons for those reactions.


Characters treat events as real and respond accordingly. The author who explains is standing outside the story, trying to use real-world explanations for fictional-world events. Yet the author’s actions—the author’s presence—serve only to show that story events are unreal. Such author interference is obtrusive and irritating. Keep you and your real world outside the fictional world rather than traipsing through it.


Leave such intrusions out of your fiction. Let the story itself—the actions and reactions of the characters—speak for themselves. If you’ve not made it clear why a character reacts as he does, then go back and repaint the scene. But don’t think that adding explanations will make a scene more emotional or lifelike. Explanations will weaken the fictional aura of a story, not strengthen it.



Blatant Explanations Should be Avoided


Explanations can be subtle or blatant, but even the subtle ones can be noticed, and a series of explanations will build up, will have readers wondering why you don’t trust them to be able to follow the story.


Have confidence in yourself. If you’ve crafted a scene and the personalities of the characters correctly and sufficiently, then readers will be able to follow events and characters. If your setup lacks detail, fix the setup—character personality, motivation, or goals; character experiences and history; emotional level of the action event; or even the details of an event itself. So rather than trying to fix weak story development by adding explanations—which, admittedly, are quite easy to write—take the more difficult step of fixing the weak character development and/or underdeveloped scenes.



People Can’t Read Minds


I’ve talked about the impossibility of characters reading the intentions and the minds of other characters before. Some explanations are examples of that same kind of mind reading. Don’t hesitate to remove traces of mind reading. Allow readers to see what’s going on and draw their own conclusions without having to wait for another character to conclude what’s happening.


If the viewpoint character doesn’t know why another character is doing something, guessing why and always being right smacks of extrasensory abilities—the viewpoint character can’t always know and can’t always guess accurately and shouldn’t be guessing every other line. Let the viewpoint character observe, show what he sees, and then let the reader conclude what that second character is doing and why.