Is There Merit In Telling And Not Showing?

Is There Merit In Telling And Not Showing?


Writers Write is your one-stop resource for writers. In this post, we explore if there is merit in telling and not showing in the books you write.

A Woman Of Steel

Danielle Steel has written 94 novels, 17 children’s books, four works of non-fiction, and a book of poetry. She is published in 43 countries in 69 languages. She has sold 650 million copies of her books. Each one – each one, ladies and gentlemen – has been a bestseller.

In a 2006 interview, she mentions how she started out writing her books at night, often coping with only four hours of sleep, so that she could be with her children in the day. When I have only four hours’ sleep, followed by a day of alternating yowling and squealing all while I’m being jumped on and am holding a half-eaten banana in my hand … I shudder to think. All that hard work seems to have paid off, though, considering her success.

The Mantra

In writing circles, we often hear (and repeat) the mantra ‘Show, don’t tell’. There’s a reason that showing is an effective way of storytelling. It uses the senses, characters’ thoughts, and emotions, and the immediacy of what is happening in the setting to convey details in a way that makes the reader feel present in and enveloped by the story.

I read Steel’s book Friends Forever a while ago, and it struck me how she so doesn’t follow this mantra. Her whole book was telling. Even stranger was the fact that I couldn’t put the book down. This made me wonder even more at her success. What makes her writing so popular, when she doesn’t follow the same mantra other bestselling authors do?

Why, Danielle, Why? Is There Merit In Telling And Not Showing?

After some thought, I came to the following conclusion. I found her storytelling style to be like sitting at your best friend’s kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of tea, having a good chinwag. Her telling style is like discussing mutual friends’ predicaments, discussing the latest developments in their life dramas and their reactions to them. I’m not talking about nasty gossip or schadenfreude (pleasure derived from another’s misfortune). It’s more the kind of talk that carries the feeling of mitgefühl (a response of compassion or empathy at someone’s misfortune).

Her characters are stereotyped, but the stereotyping means we as readers can all shake our heads, together with Danielle, at the alcoholic husband who beats his wife and is hard on his son. We can feel both frustration and understanding for the young, successful woman who throws it all away because her daddy-issues keep sabotaging her, and she constantly falls for older, married men. Danielle is the friend at the kitchen table, and as terrible as it is, we have to hear her tell the latest saga while we fire up the kettle.

Tea, anyone?

Why do you think Danielle’s books sell so well? Do you know any other authors who do a good job of telling instead of showing?

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Anthony Ehlers

    I think part of her success is that she believes every word she writes. That authenticity is almost like an X-ray for the reader. She’s not a great stylist, but she’s a good storyteller. There’s the clue you picked up on your around-the-kitchen-table analogy: a storyteller, not a storyshower. I’d add a caveat to new writers. She writes like this because she’s Danielle Steel. Don’t try this at home, folks. Ha ha.

  2. WordPainterWA

    Not having been one of her readers I can only imagine that her writing style is similar to Aayan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Infidel’ her memoir in the first person.

    I agree that this style can be quite intriguing if the author knows how to write true emotion into her prose and has been an observer of life, or perhaps it is better to say lives.

    I think that the mantra “show, don’t tell’ is a simplified way of saying put some emotion into your story so it won’t read like an auto-repair manual.

    I once was asked to review a book that mentioned lift of the foot when walking, every boring detail of the characters’ day, including going to the bathroom to ‘void’, and the action in the story failed to appear until the page 420 or a Kindle with 450 pages. I begged off doing the review for obvious reasons.

    DL Kirkwood

    CAPTCHA apparently does NOT work for anyone with a MAC computer,
    I tried by sight, and sound. It will not send.

  3. JazzFeathers

    I’m reading a book telling more than showing too, and I’m enjoying it. I too wonder how this is, since in many places I though I’d never handled the scene the way the author did, just by telling what happened and never showing us.

    The reason I came up with is that the story, the events are so interesting, I don’t really mind whether they are showed or not. The characters are well drawn in the scenes which are showed (dialogues are particularly strong) and the chain of event is tight and logical and that does the trick for me.

    We should always remember that even if the rules are good, we’re never chained to them 😉

  4. WordPainterWA

    Jazz, I agree. Sometimes rules don’t fit every situation.

    My current read is more this still and once got past daughter taking mom to the old country, and discovering her life from childhood through exile, wars, and onward I’m finding the book most intriguing. For my taste they could have left our the first three chapters of daughters taking her there and finding the village where ‘mom’ then took over the narrative.

  5. Donna Radley

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. Anthony, I agree – she’s a good storyteller. She also uses plain language, which adds to the authentic, round-the-kitchen-table feel.

    DL, I like the point you make about true emotion. I also would not have managed to review that book …

    JazzFeathers, with strong characters and dialogue, and a tight, logical chain of events, it sounds like the ‘bones’ of your current read are good.

    WordPainter, your current read perhaps lacks a strong inciting moment. I’m glad you’re enjoying the rest of it, though.

    I’m also reading a ‘telling’ book at the moment. At times, I feel myself slogging through it, and would have preferred more showing for this read.

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