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Show and Tell—Not Just a Game We Play

February 15, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 15, 2011

The original of this article was written in 2007 and posted to A Novel Edit in 2009. I’ve posted it here for easier access for readers of The Editor’s Blog. This is an expanded version of the original.

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Fiction writers are hammered with the admonition to show and not tell.

Writing teachers pound it into us.  Books on writing repeat it until we feel we’ve been beaten.  And if we’re brave enough to put our work in front of our peers for review, we are pounded yet again—Show, Don’t Tell, our critics intone.

Great.  I’ve already added 10 more adjectives per page.  Isn’t that enough showing?  I can only paint the night sky so many shades of lavender and violet.

Here is the doorway if not the key for many new writers—showing is not the same as description.  A writer may paint a clear and colorful scene but still be telling rather than showing.

Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside.  But he remains outside.  Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop.  The reader will feel the stretch in taffy, maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses.

Telling is impersonal
Showing is intimate

Telling is aloof
Showing is up close

Telling is an essay about a vacation trip
Showing is going on the trip

Telling is often a simple recitation of he did, she was, I felt.  Too much of this and the reader loses interest.

An example:

Marie walked into the room.  She looked at the blue walls and the torn curtains at the window.  She was afraid.  In the sink were a rusted pot and two dirty glasses.  The room made her feel both anxious and nostalgic.

vs.

Marie stepped into the kitchen, faltering at seeing the deep blue murals on the walls and ceiling.  She shivered.  The dark color absorbed the morning sunshine that filtered through frayed curtains.

Drawn to the sweet odor rising from the sink, she stepped close.  She ran a finger over the porcelain.  Still smooth after all these years.

“Damn!”  Marie yanked her hand out of the sink.  She picked at the Teflon flakes embedded in her index finger.

“Stupid, rusted frying pan.”

Both offer nearly the same information.  Yet the mood created, the intimacy level, differs.

                                                ______________________

If you find yourself skipping long sections of a novel, chances are those passages are all tell and no show—you’ve not been invited in, so you pass over the text.

In your own writing, look for clues in words and phrases: use of is and was and were, especially there is, there was, and there were; has, had, felt, and thought; uses of always (I always ate ice cream after a good murder); use of and then or used to.

Such words and phrases are not always inappropriate, but their use or overuse warrants a second look.

This difference between showing and telling is tricky, but once a writer understands that difference—in the same way one gets an optical illusion—he never forgets.

A tip to recognize the difference? Think of showing as providing hints without baldly stating something. Think of telling as the writer presenting a conclusion rather than him allowing the reader to draw his own.

Telling

Jill was a klutz.

Talia was afraid to go to sleep.

Walter always ordered the same doughnut and his coffee fixed the same way and paid with a five-dollar bill.

Showing

Jill tumbled down the hill after Jack for the third time that month.

Talia’d prepared a large pot of coffee and settled in to watch the four-movie marathon she’d lined up for the night. All action flicks, distracting and loud.

Walter stepped up to the counter.

“Good morning, Mr. Lawson,” the clerk said. “Got your frosted cinnamon bun and small decaf ready.” She slid a nickel across the glass with his cup. “And your change, of course.”

                                                ______________________

When a writer shows rather than tells, the reader is allowed a more active role. He draws conclusions, he projects himself into the story and into the character’s shoes, he experiences the character’s emotions with the character.

Showing and scenes go together.

We all understand scenes from movies and TV. In scenes we see the unfolding action, hear events and dialogue as they happen. We can get caught up in the story because we feel as though we’re there.

Imagine, however, that instead of watching a scene play out, we see text on the screen—Paul and Willy wrestle for the gun.

With such words, we lose all sense of scene. We do know what happened, but not how or the manner in which the events unfold. We don’t have the same connection because no one has tried to connect us to the events, to the emotions of Paul and Willy, to the sense elements of sound or sight. We can’t even imagine the pain of a particularly brutal punch because we don’t see Paul hitting Willy in the jaw.

Keep scene in mind, then, when you write. Don’t tell what happens; show the scene. Write so that the reader draws conclusions. Instead of telling the reader that Willy’s jaw ached when Paul punched him, show Willy’s head snapping back. Let us hear the sound of the crack when fist and jaw connect.

Most of long fiction is scenes. Therefore, most of what you write in a novel will be showing rather than telling. Yet, telling does have its place.

Telling and exposition go together.

So there is a use for telling in fiction?  Of course!  Declarative phrases can be powerful when used appropriately. 

Narrative summary or exposition can be used at the beginning of a scene or chapter to indicate a new setting or the passage of time. This is the perfect place for telling—Mickey and Teresa drove the 1100 miles to Phoenix with a missing windshield, a rumbling muffler, and three suitcases filled with cash.

Exposition can paint an instant picture, can easily orient the reader to a new setting or point of view.

And exposition—the simple telling of information—can be done with few words. Showing tends to involve more words and more time. Telling, in comparison, is economical.

Telling is also appropriate to give readers a break from scenes. Too much unrelenting action (dialogue included) can numb the reader. Since exposition is different, it feels different to the reader. It can be a relief to too much showing.

Writers can use telling to shock the reader, to make a phrase stand out, or to bring a scene to a sudden stop.  This last can be particularly effective when a brief sentence is used as a paragraph.

                        I froze when I saw the gun in his hand.

Telling can also work well as a throwaway tagline for the end of a chapter.

                        The clock began its ominous tolling.

Writers can also use telling to change tone or to reveal character.  Think about private detectives who recite every detail of a new client’s appearance—Her long legs were. . .  Her slit skirt fell just below her. . .  Her tear-filled eyes blinked slowly. . .  Such a section, usually brief, is used to slow the pace of a suspense or murder story and to allow the P.I. to show off his smart mouth.

Showing can be wordy; sometimes you just want the punch of a short telling sentence.

But telling has its drawbacks too. If you must include long stretches of telling (and must you?), break them up with dialogue or thoughts, or vary the sentence length. Use telling only when necessary and when it serves the story.

                                                ______________________

 Show to engage the reader.

Tell to impart information or stop the story.

Show and Tell.  Use both.  And use them well.

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