Yesterday evening, I was rewriting my short story Broken Strings in light of Garrick’s critique, and I came upon a bit of a problem.

Much of Garrick’s suggestions included doing less telling and more showing through physical descriptions, like hand clenching for anger.

For example, one of his helpful comments was:

His stomach clenched. “what?” he stared at her, eyes widening in disbelief. He couldn’t have heard her right. Not Ala. “what did you say?” or something to that effect. Draw this out a little more.

I tried writing out the actions of the characters explicitly and what not, but it ended up sounding absurd. I generally agree with the idea, but in execution it seemed like I was over doing it. Francine Prose suggests that there is a balance between narration and description to be struck, and that physical gestures should be used in moderation.

“Finally, the passage contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers—namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out—don’t tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams “yay” and jumps up and down for joy—when in fact, the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.” (Prose, p. 24)

And also,

“Mediocre writing abounds with physical cliches and stock gestures. Opening a mass-market thriller at random, I read: “Clenching her fists so hard she can feel her nails digging into the palms o fher hand she forces herself to walk over to him… She snuggled closer to Larry as she felt his arms tighten around her and his sweet breath warm the back of her neck… She adjusted her cap as she crunched down the gravel driveway… Tom bit his lip.” All of these are perfectly acceptable English sentences describing common gestures, but they feel generic. They are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. He bit his lip, she clenched her fists—our characters are nervous. The cap-adjuster is way and determined, the couple intimate, and so forth.” (Prose, p. 210)

The issue I had, was that typical gestures were too generic, but also that the characters didn’t necessarily have their particular gestured reactions to some things. Maybe it is part of the character’s personality to hardly react at all to some things. So I resorted to telling. But that wasn’t the right balance, and Garrick was right to point it out. I had too much telling, and not enough showing. But the opposite end of the spectrum is equally bad. Too much showing and not enough telling makes everything into a poorly acted scene (where subtlety is lost). When we think about it, writing fiction is like story telling, which is narration. So we shouldn’t worship the Show don’t Tell rule. It might be a useful rule to the very beginner, who exclusively tells, and so finishes his entire story in a paragraph, but the rule is too rigid to be useful. The key is to find the right amount of each for the story.

More on this once the revision is done, and I can evaluate what was done with it.


  1. Garrick on 23 September 2008, 08:46 said:

    You’re right: it’s about striking the proper balance. I did make much of physical blocking and I don’t believe I said anything at all that I can recall about what the character feels. The emotion driving our characters is important – vitally important. We’re not writing screenplays here.

    Anything – taken to extreme – can be bad.

    Btw, generic (stock) gestures allows the writer to use an economy of words to convey the mood of a character. If you employ them properly, “authorial narration” is unnecessary. If you feel the need to narrate, then that’s not the right time to insert a stock gesture. When you need more, use it. When you don’t, a sardonic arch of the eybrow works just fine.

  2. Carbon Copy on 21 October 2008, 10:23 said:

    I’ve only just found this article, otherwise I would have commented sooner. I just wanted to add that POV is incredibly important when determining what style should be used at any particular point.

    If your POV character is nervous, we should get a peek inside his head and see why he is nervous, but if he is observing someone else who is nervous, he should only have that other person’s physical gestures to go by, in which case you use the physical descriptions such as lip-chewing.

    Considering what your POV character knows, and what he can only surmise from visual clues, can really help in determining how to proceed.