Show and Tell: Writing Pitfalls #1

The other day, when I hit publish on my admittedly critical book review of Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, I couldn’t help but feel that there was more to be said. Lessons to be learned, in fact.

My criticisms ranged from low-hanging editorial fruit, like grammatical errors, to deeper systemic issues, like the lack of a fleshed out story arc.

It dawned on me that, while this book was most certainly published when it still needed a lot more work, it actually makes for the perfect case study in the various creative writing pathologies that plague many authors.

With that in mind, I decided to write a series of creative writing posts, each exploring a different writing pitfall, with concrete examples and advice on correcting them. First, I must of course offer up a neon-lit disclaimer that I am by no means a professional editor. However, I have attended numerous creative writing workshops and panels held by top notch genre authors, which have taught me a great deal about having a critical eye for quality storytelling.

I hope you all enjoy this series, and please, as always, use the comments section for lively discussion! If you think any writing advice I give is ill-advised, I want to hear that just as much as I want to hear if you agree with it.

Without further ado, the first topic in the series is expository writing. Enjoy!


One of the first pieces advice that most budding writers receive is to “show; don’t tell.” Don’t tell me the protagonist is angry; show me his face turning red as he balls up his fists and huffs loudly.

Avoiding excessive exposition sounds simple enough, but in practice, it can be difficult to avoid, particularly in genres like science fiction and fantasy, where the author needs to explain a magic system or a new technology to the reader.

The following paragraph from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin serves as a fantastic example of what not to do. In the following scene, the protagonist (nicknamed Seven) is attending his royal coming-of-age ceremony:

Atop the king’s terrace, the seats were filled and conversation flooded the air, smiles abounding around the tables. Seven watched from the head table with a feeling of pride. He sat between his two oldest brothers, Cordero and Haydon. He could not remember a celebration such as this and silently reveled that it was for him. Haydon whispered something in Seven’s ear, which made him laugh. Cordero and Haydon were hundreds of years older than he was, yet still took time from their busy schedules to make Seven feel loved and important.

So, what’s wrong with this paragraph? Well, aside from some missing commas, this description of Seven’s situation and feelings does way too much telling. To be fair, we need exposition for the part that tells us that Cordero and Haydon are hundreds of years older than Seven; after all, not all expository writing is bad.

However, the author merely tells us that Seven is silently reveling, just as he merely tells us that Haydon whispers a joke in Seven’s ear. Re-writing the above paragraph with more showing and less telling might look like this:

Atop the king’s terrace, courtiers shuffled to their seats, flooding the banquet hall with excited chatter. Seven held his chin high with pride, smiling to himself as he watched from the head table.

I can’t believe this is all for me, he thought to himself.

“Better not spill dinner on your ceremony robes!” Haydon said, elbowing Seven and beaming down at his little brother, the youngest by hundreds of years.

“Now, now, Haydon,” Cordero interjected, his deep brown eyes twinkling. “We shouldn’t poke too much fun at our baby brother. It won’t be long before he’s strong enough to beat us in a duel!”

The three brothers chuckled, smiling at one another. “It means so much to me that you both are here for my ceremony,” Seven said to his role models.

See the difference?

The way I like to conceptualize expository writing is the difference between telling a friend about the novel you are writing, versus actually writing the novel. If you are having coffee with a friend and are telling them the basics of your novel, you will understandably use exposition, perhaps like this:

“In the chapter I’m currently writing, the main character turns 12 and attends his coming of age ceremony. I’m using this chapter to establish the strong family ties he has with his siblings, as well as to show how much faith the king has in him when, at the end of the ceremony, he decides to appoint the main character as an emissary of the court.”

It’s like a game of telephone: there’s the story itself, then the writer, then the reader. The writer’s job is to convey the story exactly as it is to the reader. And while some exposition is inevitable, ideally the writer will remove herself as much as possible from the chain. This is ultimately what is meant by “show and don’t tell.” Let the reader hear the dialogue for himself. Let the reader see the characters in action for himself. In short, don’t recap things at a high level.

As a rule of thumb to self-check for unnecessary exposition, I recommend reading back what you wrote and asking yourself if it is written in the same way that you would tell a friend about a situation. After all, when we are conversing with friends and family, we don’t speak in the same way that a novel is written.

Here is a simplistic example. If I am writing about my day in a novel, I might say,

I shielded my eyes from the mid-morning sun as I scurried into the office, glancing at my watch and frowning.

“Ms. Graham,” my boss said, glaring at me over her glasses. “You’re late.”

And if I am telling my husband about my day, I would simply say,

I was late to work today.

So, as you edit, I recommend doing this self-check to see if what you wrote is written in the same way you would tell a friend or family member about the same scene.

Tell me, what are your thoughts and techniques on avoid expository writing?

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte

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22 comments

  1. Sigh. “Show don’t tell” is the bane of my existence. When people ask about my writing, I call myself a *story-teller* – I freely admit that there is too much telling. When I try to edit out the telling, I’m left with a confusing mess. I continue to try to improve this ‘flaw’ but there’s something key about the process that I just don’t get.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s the bane of mine as well. Your statement just made me stop and think about the fact that it is a little funny that we call an author a storyteller, rather than a story-shower. I get it, but it’s funny when you put it in this context.

      As I mentioned to Paul in response to his comment, my biggest weakness when it comes to “show don’t tell” is when I am trying to execute a lapse of time in my narrative. Whether it be one day or one year, I find that I inevitably revert back to exposition to handle the intervening time.

      So for me, writing the passage of time without too much exposition is an art I have definitely yet to master.

      Like

  2. Your review of Logan’s book and this very post have really got my head spinning. It’s making me really question my own manuscript and how well it must read to a neutral party.

    As my story is over 300,000 words long I know there’ll be parts that just don’t read well and likely laden with exposition (I can’t read that word without thinking of Austin Powers 😂) as there were certain parts I rushed through more out of excitement than wanting to just get it done. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for any incidences of it from henceforth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am working my way through your comments in a weird order, but I wanted to reply to this one as soon as I could. (Side note: have I mentioned recently that I really love the meaty conversations that happen on blogs; this, to me, is what community in blogging is all about.)

      Anyway, I imagine you are being overly concerned (not that that’s a bad thing, as it keeps you on your toes). From all the fiction of yours that I’ve read so far, I find that you do quite a good job of painting a vivid picture of a scene and its characters. Personally I find it hard to avoid expository language when I am trying to convey what happened over a period of lapsed time. Alas, as I mentioned to you the other day, I’m writing this series as much to help myself as I am for others!

      Liked by 2 people

      • You know I agree with you wholeheartedly. If I were Stone Cold Steve Austin I’d be asking you to gimme a hell yeah! Comments in passing is what Facebook is for. Here on WP I personally feel we should ALL be getting into proper conversation because in my mind we’re a cut above the Facebookers in a sense of depth (which I suppose actually makes us a cut below really – oh, how droll!)
        I perhaps am being overly concerned as I’ve always had an affinity for being descriptive where my writing is concerned. There are a lot of things like contented sighs, furrowed brows and snarling expressions littered throughout Revenge so I know that if there is a problem with expository language that it won’t be a constant one. As I’ve stated in another comment today, my style of writing differs from novel to blog. The latter is much more succinct while the former is extremely descriptive (perhaps too descriptive in places).
        I think this series will definitely help me too and like Rae said, I don’t think you need to be an editor to read a story properly and form a critical opinion of how it might come across to the reader. At the end of the day, you are the one paying to read it. An editor is paid to read it. If anything your critique matters more. It would to me as an author.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Full disclosure: I just had to Google who Stone Cold Steve Austin is. The internet proceeded to present me with various memes of him saying ‘hell yeah!’ So, right back at ya! Haha

        Your last statement made me pause and think (as all good statements should, I suppose). Since I’m not a professional editor, I have a tendency to quickly discount my own opinions and tell myself, “well who am I to say anything, I’m not an expert.” Perhaps this diffidence is unwarranted, as you and Rae point out. We as readers know what we like, and ultimately we are the ones paying to read the damn book anyways. “You are the one paying to read it; an editor is paid to read it.” I never thought of it in those terms, but I love this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think for one minute that there aren’t some charlatan editors out there who blow smoke up the rear of authors just because they want the money. If they point out abundant flaws then they’re giving themselves more to do. Why bother? I imagine they’ll have set fees and won’t charge extra per mistake so why would it concern them if they don’t bother to read properly and miss a few?
        The readers are the ones we need to impress.More so even than the publishers. Look at those indie authors who went on to be a huge success. They didn’t need a publisher to tell them what was right or wrong because the public themselves made that judgement call and the customer is, of course, always right! So your critique is always going to matter more. I’d take your critique of my WIP more seriously than a person paid to read it or a publisher looking to make a fortune off my hard work.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Looks like you’ve stumbled on a good idea… looking forward to this series. I don’t have much else to comment specifically on this topic at the moment, but I can see you are thinking this series out well… and you don’t have to be a professional editor to know what reads well to an audience!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your second example was spot on. I think you should have led with that as your first example, because to writers who aren’t very adept at fiction-writing, it’s quite helpful 😜. I love your suggestions and this is a wonderful idea for a series. I wonder if this author will ever come across your review and now this post?? 😱

    Liked by 1 person

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