Show vs Tell


by J. Tanner

A lot of beginning writers have trouble with show vs tell. Some of my early rejections, ones that weren’t straight up forms, mentioned the problem. I see in various forums and critique groups that I wasn’t alone. The question keeps coming up.

Conceptually, it’s not tough, though it can be tough to apply to one’s own writing without assistance. After all, the basic mindset for the average person when verbally telling a story about what happened in their day resorts to telling the story rather than trying to show it. And when people starting putting imagined stories down on the page, they use the technique they’ve been using all their life. And quickly find it doesn’t work for a reader at all even though all the ideas that seemed so interesting in the writer’s head are on the page.

But they are lifeless. And showing those ideas vs telling them is one way to bring them to life.

In its most basic form, telling provides a rather dry explanation while showing gives details which allow you to figure out that explanation on your own.

TELL:

J was a bad writer.

SHOW:

Typos littered J’s manuscript and he knew it. Couldn’t be
bothered with it. That was for editors to deal with. He just needed to finish up this character description to make his page count for the day so he delved into the file on his PC with passages culled from others’ books, searched for “blonde” and quickly found a paragraph from a Koontz book that worked. He adjusted the name, and a word or two, then saved the file. Time to relax!

When you read them side by side you quickly notice that showing takes more words, and the tell version is just a summary. You get the same info, but the first TELLS the reader the answer while the latter SHOWS a series of details, thoughts, and actions which allow the reader to draw the same conclusion.

Of course, there are times when summary (or telling) are necessary and even important, mainly in transitions between the interesting events where a clean break might disorient the reader:

I went home and collapsed into bed.

The office was ablaze when I arrived, licks of flame and smoke pouring from the broken windows.

That’s pretty abrupt. You could solve it in several ways, but summary telling is one choice since nothing interesting happened in the interrim.

I went home and collapsed into bed.

The next morning I woke, showered, and headed immediately into work without breakfast. The office was ablaze when I arrived, licks of flame and smoke pouring from the broken windows.

The reader doesn’t really get much evocative detail on the process of waking up and getting dressed, but it’s not germaine to this particular story so it’s fine to breeze past it.

The rule of thumb is show all the interesting stuff, and skip or tell the uninteresting stuff. Since the telling is designed to quickly speed past the uninteresting parts it should be a very small percentage of the overall story, let’s say 10% just for sake of example though you shouldn’t be counting or anything. Beginning writers often have 75%+ or even 100% telling and that variance makes for very easy to reject fiction for editors and agents (and readers!)

Another place where novice writers get tripped up is giving history lessons about their setting rather than letting the character (and by extension the reader) experience the details. Like this:

Agamia was the capital of the kingdom or Thron. It stood for a thousand years in the middle of the arid Abash desert, a bright oasis. The sun beat down on its squat buildings. The wind-driven sand battered the walls facing west. The people were dark-skinned, and dressed lightly.

And so on, often for paragraphs at a time. Sometimes better written sometimes worse, but always a laundry list of facts, disassociated from the story. An encyclopedia entry. A passage doing one thing instead of two.

You can, instead, show the same information through the filter of your character like this:

Garrett skulked through the streets of Agamia, finding himself unconsciously moving from the shadow of one squat building to the next. He wiped his brow. He was dressed too warm. The natives wore little, but their dark skin protected them better from the beating sun. Garrett ran his fingers along a wall, feeling the grooves of the ornately carved glyphs that decorated them, now worn smooth by a thousand years of sandstorms blasting them. Garrett could not fathom why the ancient kings chose this spot, in the middle of this damned desert, to build their capital city.

By mixing in the history with your character’s observations and actions you can avoid long passages of disassociated description that, to many readers, feel like an interruption to the story.

And finally, just about the worst possible offense would be summarizing a character’s actions and emotions at critical times. No one wants to read:

Then there was a huge fight. It was crazy. You should have been
there.

Yeah, says the reader. I wish I was. It was your job to make me feel like I was and you failed.

Addendum:

I’ve come across some backlash recently on the whole concept of showing vs telling. My thoughts on the arguments:

Author X doesn’t write that way at all. This proves the rule is wrong.

It’s not a rule. It’s a technique. A guideline. And one that’s proven to work well and be popular with readers of genre fiction. But it’s not the only way to write a good book. There are writers who can write such fantastic telling that we start to call it exposition instead. (Its true name, telling done well.) It is less common in genre fiction than literary fiction but it exists everywhere. It’s pretty uncommon on the bestsellers lists. But it can be done. If you understand all this and your personal path is through developing such skill at quality exposition then go for it. The road less traveled may be tougher, but it still heads to the same destination.

It’s not just for exceptional or literary cases. Bestseller X includes long passages of telling/exposition.

It’s true. And you’ll also often see comments by random readers that they skip or skim such passages even by writers they love. Readers are brutal. Readers of popular fiction tend toward character and story-centric and are bored easily when you stray from that. You can build a different audience. Or you can give that audience a product that they’ll enjoy so much they’ll stick with you through parts they don’t like which is the route some bestsellers travel. But if you’re after that audience anyway why not just commit to it?

The phrase “show vs tell” doesn’t properly describe what’s really going on in passages labeled “showing” vs passages labeled “telling”.

So what. It’s the name that stuck. It’s shorthand at this point and a more accurate title won’t be replacing it any time soon. Novice writers need to know what it means when an editor scribbles “show, don’t tell” on a rejection and changing the name now would just confuse matters further.

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