Posted in Adicia, Backstory, Russian novel, Russian novel sequel, Third Russian novel, Writing

Why I prefer telling to showing

I make no bones about the fact that I have a writing style that’s considered rather old-fashioned, even undesirable, by many people in the current era. The way I see it, I’m merely writing the way I’ve always written, in the style I’m most familiar with reading. When most of the books you’ve read throughout your life were written before your time, you’re going to be used to one way of telling a story. Trying to copy what’s considered most desirable now would feel extremely fake and forced. I avoid reading fads the same way I’ve never really been into current music and movies. If something or someone stands the test of time, it’ll still be there to be discovered in 20 or 30 years, and it’ll ensure I got into that band, writer, or actor because I discovered it for myself, not because everyone was proclaiming it as the best thing since sliced bread.

Many of the children’s and young adult books I read when I was younger began with that “Once upon a time” style, taking time to set up characters, setting, and situation instead of trying to immediately hook the reader with some cryptic, witty line or an intense action scene. If I don’t know who these people are or what their story is, why am I going to follow along if I’m dropped into their lives in media res? Traditionally, a first chapter was about establishing the story, and then introducing some kind of action or problem at the end of the first chapter or during the second. Once we know and care about these people, then we can get into the meat of the story.

For a long time I didn’t really understand what exactly showing vs. telling meant. I assumed telling meant describing stuff after the fact instead of narrating important events as they were unfolding. How was I supposed to know it’s considered such a crime and grave writing error to directly tell the reader something? I really prefer to just be told important, establishing information right upfront, instead of playing guessing games or being left wondering for many chapters. Some things you can’t really “show” without taking up too much space. I’d rather just be told a character is nervous or excited without having several paragraphs of description about a pounding heart, sweating palms, pushing hands through his or her hair, pacing back and forth, etc. Get to the damn point; don’t bore me with endless descriptions of body language and psychological state!

And if it’s in the first chapter or opening paragraphs, why not just cut to the chase and establish certain important information? Of course there’s plenty of room later to show that a character is a spoilt brat, very religious, has psychological scars from an abusive childhood, etc. But if we don’t know a character yet, and that’s a very important part of his or her personality, why not just state it upfront so we’re not left wondering or lacking key information to understanding someone?

A number of characters are introduced, and a bit of backstory is given, in the first several pages of my Russian novel. (Keep in mind that the current opening is the third version of the opening, not the same exact one that’s been there since I started writing it in January ’93.) I deliberately chose to open by conveying the information that Lyuba has just rejected Ivan’s marriage proposal, and that he’s really confused and broken up over it. I wanted to leave a question in the reader’s mind as to why exactly she rejected him and what led up to that.

Ivan speculates it has something to do with her mother, and how Lyuba has long pretended she prefers Boris. Later on in the first chapter, Lyuba pretty much confirms his suspicions. But we still don’t know exactly why she did it, when she’s shown as being really torn up about it too, constantly thinking back to their month-long secret romance and regretting the very real possibility of never becoming the wife of the man she loves so much. During a later flashback told in two parts, we finally see how their clandestine romance started, how her mother influenced her into jilting Ivan, and the rejected proposal itself.

It was also important for me to establish during the first chapter that Ivan and Lyuba were both abused by their fathers growing up, and that this makes them feel drawn to one another and the type of people who put on façades to the world to hide what’s really going on inside. Why leave the reader guessing? The reader needs to know Lyuba was abused by her father to immediately understand why she’s so afraid of being with a nice guy and would rather be with an uncouth guy like Boris simply because he promises more financially. Knowing Ivan was abused by his father in a different way also helps the reader to understand his seemingly contradictory anger management problems and extreme sensitivity.

With my Russian novel sequel, I spent about two pages just setting up the situation and Ivan’s character, and briefly telling the reader a little bit about his and Lyuba’s relationship, their current situation, and how they’re planning to move to the Midwest someday with their neighbors and best friends Kat, Nikolas, Eliisabet, and Aleksey. For the benefit of a potential reader who might not’ve read the first book, I introduced everyone as though for the first time. By the time Ivan comes home so late on his first anniversary (also the year-anniversary of his children’s baptism), we know what’s going through his head and how Lyuba is about to react. I had no desire to start by having him coming home and then getting a tongue-lashing, since that completely removes the gradual set-up of the situation and characters.

The third book is going to just start with Lyuba and Ivan in the barn during a blizzard in January 1933, during which time they conceive their seventh child Irina, whom Lyuba almost miscarries during her third month. (The barn is heated since they love their animals so much, esp. their belovèd old Kabardin horse they brought when they immigrated and kept on a stable in Long Island till they resettled in Minnesota. No chance of freezing by having sex in this barn during a blizzard!) By this point, I’m going to feel confident in just introducing the story and not reintroducing everyone all over again. I similarly just launched into the story in the hiatused second book in Adicia’s family saga. No need to set everything and everyone up.

Much of Part I of Adicia’s story might indeed be considered a large portion of backstory by some, since it’s mostly about setting up the relationship between the sisters, their toxic home life, and Allen’s conflicting pull towards making good while feeling unable to break free of the life he’s most familiar with. But without that base, the rest of the book doesn’t make a lot of sense. Gemma’s forced marriage at the end of Part I is the triggering event that starts in motion everything that happens afterwards, but that can’t stand alone or be the introductory event of the entire book.

There are some backstory paragraphs in Chapter 1 about Sarah, Allen and Carlos, and the layout of the Troys’ larger than average apartment (whose size is explained by having been the former apartment of the landlord’s family). We only briefly see Allen and Carlos during this chapter and don’t get to know them till the second chapter, but I felt it were important to immediately tell the reader that they’re Adicia’s older brothers who drink, use drugs, go around with girls, and do other negative things, like stealing. It was also established, during the course of that one explanatory paragraph, that Allen is a very nice guy when he’s sober, very protective of his sisters, and that his sisters hold out hope of him going clean one day since he’s not nearly as much of a drunk and drug addict as Carlos. Sarah’s backstory is similarly explained in one paragraph, of how she came to America in 1947 as a young Shoah survivor and found herself working for the black-hearted Mrs. Troy.

Besides, I don’t really write action-driven stories. They’re more character-driven, about growth and development, and the adventures the characters have growing up or navigating their way through difficult situations as adults. So telling more than showing works best for deliberately slower-paced stories, I feel. It was considered the norm and perfectly acceptable a few decades ago, not a horrible mistake. And it is called storytelling, not storyshowing.


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

2 thoughts on “Why I prefer telling to showing

  1. I was so pleased to find that I am not the only one who has been, in effect, mentored by books written before the rule of immediacy in word and deed. I know of no other way to insert the very foundation of a story without some measure of history, however brief, in the beginning. I realize back story can be incorporated as the pages turn, but I do find the modern day “rule” to be subjective in the mind of the discerning reader. The show and tell aspect is nebulous. I understand the philosophy behind it, to a point, but so many stories become lifeless without some revealing (hint) of motivation, whereas disposition might be more a matter of show than tell. I think it has to flow naturally, either way. The flow of the story is everything.

    I very much like your blog here.


    1. Thank you for your comments! I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the years at showing emotional reactions and writing realistic dialogue instead of showing too little or too much, but I don’t think I’ll ever shake off my lifelong ingrained habit of directly stating important, establishing information. What some writers call infodump or backstory, I just call narrative exposition or dramatic buildup.


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