Show, not Tell

There are 3 rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Action, Exposition

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Here’s a small lesson on telling, but not necessarily showing. To a certain extent, telling or exposition is completely and absolutely necessary in your story or, you know, things wouldn’t make sense to us. The reason  you’re inclined to write back story is, after all, to make sense of the present story. You write in a lot of telling, a lot of exposition, because you want your reader to understand. That’s natural.

But there’s a formula to it.

  1. Current action.

  2. Exposition.

  3. Repeat.

With this formula, you’re forced only to describe when it’s necessary to understand what’s going on. Instead of describing the house a group of people are heading to and then cut to them knocking on the door, reverse it. Have them knock on the door and then describe the house, because then it’s necessary (maybe!) to know what the house might look like.

It’s a sort of method of payment for telling readers something you can’t simply show them. If you give them a present action to focus on, slipping in exposition so they can make sense of the scene is a natural flow.

Here’s the set up of the example:

The current action is Mindy going into the bathroom to brush her teeth. When she looks in the mirror, she notices that she isn’t quite herself today–she’s in her brother’s body. What do we need to know to understand this action? Perhaps that the room looks different, she feels different, etc.

In the first example, I have numbered the examples of blatant telling that, in my opinion, are either hidden well in the action or are needed to understand the present action. The numbers are evenly spaced through the narration. The paragraph seems short and to the point (although perhaps not really intriguing). In each case, the action comes before the exposition.

The second example switches the order, presenting exposition before the action it explains. It’s longer, and there’s actually more unneeded exposition (letters a-e) because there’s no limit. If you place the action first, you’re limiting what you can logically explain without jumping around. When you place the exposition first, you’re unrestricted!

Compare the two examples! Which do you think is better?

Action, Exposition:

Mindy slid out of bed feeling weird–groggy still, half-asleep and hazy. She walked across blue carpet (1) barely able to hold her eyes open before opening the door and heading down the hall to the bathroom. The hardwood was cold against her feet (2), her vision blurry as she glanced at the pictures lining the walls (3). She flipped on the light after stepping into the bathroom, wiggled her toes against the shaggy rug (4), and grabbed her toothbrush and toothpaste. She squeezed the white paste onto her brush, let cold water run on it, and then put it into her mouth. She squinted at her hands. They looked weird today. Maybe they were a bit swollen (5). She looked up to the mirror and almost swallowed her toothbrush whole–why was she looking back at her brother?

Exposition, Action:

Mindy slid out of bed feeling weird–groggy still, half-asleep and hazy.  She looked down at the carpet, it was blue (1), and took a look around her room. There were blue walls, a bookshelf full of videogames (a). She frowned and rubbed her eyes. Must still be dreaming. She walked to the door, opened it, and headed down the ball to the bathroom. There were hardwood floors (2), pictures lining the halls (3), and glaring bright lights in the ceiling. The hall was two feet narrow (b) and in her sleepy, half-opened eyes, it looked much smaller than she was used to. She got to the bathroom and flipped the light on. It was all white, a tub against the far wall with a sea-horse shower curtain (c). There was a shaggy blue rug hiding the dull linoleum (4). She grabbed her toothbrush and toothpaste, let cold run onto it, and began brushing her teeth. Her hands looked swollen (5) as she stared down at them. They looked weird but she shrugged it off. Her eyes fell on the water running in the white porcelain sink (d). Above it was a medicine cabinet with a mirror (e). She looked up into it to assess how she looked and almost swallowed her toothbrush whole–why was she looking back at her brother?

A cool exercise to drive the point home is to pick up your favorite book, or a book by your favorite author. Read carefully and notice when the author is writing the present action and when they’re lacing in the exposition. You’ll notice the pattern, action first, exposition after! I promise.


Written by Jessica Lei

October 28, 2010 at 6:00 am

Posted in Writing

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