How to Show vs. Tell in Historical Fiction

One of the most talked-about elements of writing craft is showing vs. telling. The fact is, once you learn how to show in your writing, it’s hard not to. Don’t worry—if you’re not sure how to do that yet, you’ll have a better idea by the end of this post. That said, this blog post is geared toward how to show in historical fiction, particularly when the place you’re writing about is gone, or when it exists, but it’s “plagued” by the trappings of modernity.

So there you have it—this is your ultimate guide to:

  • How to show versus tell
  • When to show versus tell
  • Showing in historical fiction

Are you ready to learn how to make your historical fiction pop? Keep reading.

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How to Show v. Tell

If you’ve ever received a critique on your writing, you might have seen “Show, don’t tell” scrawled in on the margins. This might have been confusing, so let’s start with defining showing and telling.

It’s not about showing a kindergarten class the cool rock you found over the weekend.

Showing is about grabbing the reader and pulling her into the story by igniting her imagination. Telling, on the other hand, means you’re giving the reader info without leaving her the opportunity to watch it unfold in her mind’s eye.

Now that you know the difference between showing and telling, how do you show in prose? It’s not enough to say you write a description, but rather you need to write a description that involves as many of the six senses as possible. Those senses include:

  • Sight
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Intuition

Intuition definitely counts as one of the important senses, because sometimes a certain place, person or situation will just bring about a positive or negative feeling. When you allow your reader to experience that, or any of the above senses, you invite her to participate in the story with your characters, and that can keep her turning the pages.

Let’s look at some examples of how to turn telling into showing for each of these senses.

 

Sight

Sight is probably the sense you write about most unless you or your character doesn’t have sight, and then you might rely more on another sense. Because of this, it’s easy for this sense to be overused, but it’s also important.

For this sense, an example of telling might be:

The pizza looked hot.

Okay, that’s not a bad start if it’s your first draft. But it doesn’t really evoke the sense itself. For one thing, while we might say in conversation, “Boy, that food looks hot,” we can’t really see the temperature (without a thermometer).

What we can see is steam rising from the cheese. Maybe there’s some sizzling going on. Check out this example of taking “The pizza looked hot” and making it more exciting for the reader:

Brown bubbles of mozzarella swelled and deflated. White steam hovered over the pie before curling into nothing, and in the center of each concave slice of pepperoni, oil sizzled. 

In those two sentences, I’ve shown what it looks like when pizza is hot. I’ve also made myself hungry (tomorrow is pizza night).

 

Sound

Hearing is a powerful sense in a story, especially when you don’t pair it with sights. If it’s dark out, our imagination can make such wonderful terrors out of every little sound. Hearing someone breathe beside you while you both wait to jump up and cry, “Surprise!” can create excitement. Overall, sound can be used to create tension while also informing the reader.

That’s why, whenever you can, you want to show with sounds instead of telling the reader. Take a look at this example. We’ll start again with a statement that tells the reader about a sound.

The lawnmower rumbled.

Rumbled is a fun word—let’s remember to keep that one in play. But we can do more for this statement than to just tell the reader that the lawnmower was rumbling. Let’s improve it like this:

The rumbling roar of the lawnmower drowned out the twittering birds. Small twigs snapped and cracked beneath its wheels. 

In just two sentences, we’ve shown the reader what the lawnmower sounds like instead of telling her. The second try is much more interesting to read than “The lawnmower rumbled.”

 

Smell

Did you know that our sense of smell is the strongest sense for memory recall? In the wild, animals imprint on their babies when they’re born. My guess is that way back when we were newly evolved, so too did we.

It’s not just about how your parents and siblings smell though—our sense of smell does this for all sorts of aromas and odors. Using vivid smells is a great way to get your reader to react. You can make them feel calm, hungry, or sick to their stomach.

The roadkill smelled bad.

“Bad” is a weak word. Seriously—anytime you find it in your prose outside of dialogue, you should find a better word to replace it. Aside from that, we don’t know from this example what sort of bad smell it is.

But wait! You have probably smelled roadkill before, right? You know what sort of bad smells it produces. As the writer trying to show and not tell, your job isn’t to assume your reader has the same experience you do. Check out this rewrite:

It hit his nose first, the sick, sweet odor climbing into his nostrils and clawing its way down his throat and into his stomach, churning its contents. The former squirrel gave off a pungent mix that he could only describe as body odor plus compost, plus manure. 

I probably should have warned you not to eat anything while reading this part. Oops! Sure, I could go back and change that before posting this blog but here’s the thing—one of my favorite professors told me that any time I can make the reader uncomfortable, I should. So if you’re uncomfortable, I’m sorry but the words made me do it.

 

Taste

If you’ve ever seen the movie Ratatouille, you know the difference in showing vs. telling on taste. Taste is an important sense because so much meaning can be found in food. It’s cultural, filled with traditions. Some combinations beg wonderment. Why miss out on the opportunity to how your reader what something tastes like? Let’s jump right into the example.

The savory flavor made her mouth water for more.

Okay, this is a little better than our previous examples of telling. The fact is, I hate even writing poorly as an example. Even so, this can be drastically improved. Ready? Here we go.

The butter mixed into the mashed potatoes soothed her tongue, ending on a sweeter note for the carrot cubes her mother had mixed in. She scooped her fork into the potatoes, this time dodging a carrot. This bite brought a new wave of rich cream, with just a hint of salt to excite her taste buds. She lifted another taste, and saliva pooled around her tongue.

Doesn’t that do a better job of showing the taste of mashed potatoes? They’re creamy, they’re a little salty, and the added carrots provide a temporary sweetness. The character’s mouth still waters, but I’ve shown it instead of telling you about it.

 

Touch

Touch, like the other sensations, can be powerful if properly handled in prose. Other than smell and sound, touch is probably the first sense we use to learn our world. In watching my nephews and niece, I’ve learned a lot about perception. Newborns can’t see more than a foot away, and their vision is blurry. They rely on other sensations to learn about their world. One of those is touch—and not just on their hands. They understand, for example, that a bottle in their mouth is a cue to drink.

Here’s my example of telling a reader about touch:

The sandpaper was rough. 

Wow, stop the presses—it’s so descriptive! If you can’t sense my sarcasm, you might need to get your sarcasm radar checked. Let’s improve this by enticing you to feel like you’re actually touching the sandpaper.

Tiny bumps of hard grit scrape against her soft fingertips. She grabs the paper in one hand, curling it into her fist. It folds on jagged creases, pressing the sand into her palm. Moving the corner of the paper over the end of a piece of wood, her hand warms from the friction of the sandpaper moving back and forth along the heel of her palm.

Do you feel like you’re using sandpaper? I hope so. This description shows—the other tells.

 

Intuition

Chances are you’ve had a gut feeling. That notion that something is either going to go well or not. In fiction, intuition is even more powerful than the other five senses because it can create tension better than any other sense. Use it too much, and your reader might feel like you’re aiming for clairvoyance. Use it right, however, and you’ll continue to hold your reader’s attention. What you want to avoid in your prose is to write something like this:

Joe had a gut feeling something was wrong.

Telling the reader this is robbing him of a valuable opportunity to feel, to connect with Joe, and to anticipate. Instead, what you might write is something like this:

Joe picked up the phone on the fourth ring. Dead air. Silence. He waited, and then he heard a click and dial tone. His palms dampened until he clutched the receiver in a clammy vice grip. A cold knot sank into his stomach, rooting him to the spot next to the humming refrigerator. He tried to swallow, but couldn’t—his tongue was dry and scratchy. Judy should have arrived at her parents’ house an hour ago.

You might notice that I have used other senses in this example. I used sound and touch in order to describe how Joe’s intuition is making him feel. Then at the end of this example, I included Joe’s thought—that Judy should have arrived safely. This suggests that he was expecting her call, but certainly not dead air. I also upped the tension a little by making him answer on the fourth ring. Did he wait so long because he felt like something had gone wrong?

Now that you know how to show versus tell, it’s time to learn when to use this fiction-writing super power.

When to Show v. Tell

Now that you know how to show, you might be tempted to do it all the time. Please don’t. For one thing, a novel-length work would be thousands of pages that would likely bore your reader. For another, you’ll probably run out of unique ways to describe things.

Just because you can show, doesn’t mean you need to do it all the time. There are appropriate times to tell your reader something. Suppose your main character is involved in a bank heist. You don’t have to describe how the raised money feels on a bill of money unless it’s the first time your character has touched paper money or something.

I’m not saying to assume your reader has had a similar experience to yours. I’m saying that some experiences if spelled out, are unnecessary. Besides, anyone participating in a bank heist isn’t going to sit around in the safe experiencing paper money through every possible sense. They’re going to pack it up and try to leave.

This brings me to another time it’s okay to tell. If you want the pace of your story to move along at a decent clip, telling can accomplish that better than showing. A character in a high-speed chase isn’t going too well on the way the leather-wrapped steering wheel fits in her hands. She’s going to be focused on moving through traffic as quickly as she can without getting into an accident.

Apparently, my characters in this section are all criminals.

Getting back to when to tell instead of show, my best advice is to use your best judgment. After that, rely on beta readers, fellow students, mentors, professors, editors…whoever is going to read your story before you put it out into the world to make sure it’s as strong as it can be. If they’re bored, there’s a chance your other readers will be, too—and then it might be worth it to revisit a particular area and decide whether you can tell instead of show.

I’ve heard many writers advise that a good writer always shows instead of telling. However, I’ve found that, like most things, a bit of moderation goes a long way. Aim for balance, and you’ll keep your reader’s attention.

Showing in Historical Fiction

For part of my novel that I’m planning to write for my MFA program, several scenes take place in a village called Mortimer, France. This was a Medieval village located in present-day Champagne. The problem? Even were I to visit Champagne, it wouldn’t look the way Mortimer looked. It wouldn’t sound the same or smell the same (though the latter is probably a good thing, especially for the residents of Champagne).

It wouldn’t feel the same.

As a historical fiction writer, I want to be as accurate to history as I can be. It helps make my story believable, and that’s crucial in order for the reader to connect to my characters and their struggles. But I will never know first hand what it would have been like to stand in the middle of the village of Mortimer.

So how am I fixing this problem? I’m thinking of it as a creative challenge, not a problem, for one thing. I get to shape my own version of Mortimer, backed by as much research as I can gather. Who is going to tell me there wasn’t a market stand somewhere? Who would argue that?

The fact is, for fiction writers who don’t have the opportunity to travel in person to every place they write about, historical fiction isn’t a curse…it’s a blessing. It’s freedom.

But like all freedoms, this one comes with a duty. If I just make things up off the cuff, my Mortimer will not seem genuine. So I have to use research where I can find it. If there are other villages or museums that preserve in any way the Medieval or Gothic French village, I have to learn about them. I can then use that knowledge to shape my own Mortimer.

Never underestimate the value of museums, libraries, and local historical societies. The internet offers a vast array of information, but sometimes there’s nothing like asking an expert. For one thing, the information you gather will be far more trustworthy. For another, you might learn things you wouldn’t have discovered if you relied solely on the internet.

The internet is my starting point. From there I dig deeper to find out what kind of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings—both tangible and not—one might have experienced in a village like Mortimer. From there, I use my skills in showing, and my judgment on when to show vs. tell, to build a vivid world in which my reader can participate.

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