Show vs Tell
You may have run across the phrase “Show, don’t tell” or some variant. And you may have Googled it and found countless sites on why you need to do this. The reason can be boiled down to:
Show helps your reader feel it. Tell helps your reader know it.
Both have their places in your story. This is why I prefer the phrase “Show versus Tell,” which validates both aspects, to “Show, don’t tell,” which implies telling is bad.
The most confusing part of all this is how to tell whether an instance is showing or telling. To see the difference, I find it’s easiest to turn a Tell into Show.
1. Here’s how to do that. Whenever you make a blanket statement about a person or place, ask yourself (or your POV character): How do you know?
2. Then insert details into the answer. (Recall my Details post? Remember to make details specific and unique to your character/world.)
Awfully generic example:
Jack was angry.
Ask yourself (or POV character): “How do you know?”
Because he hit the wall angrily.
That’s better. Omit (leave out) the orange part and you have a sentence that’s a little more show, a little less tell. You can do better, though, because you can still ask: How do you know he hit the wall angrily?
Because he made his hand into a fist and punched the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster.
Much better. Can you still ask “How do you know he made his hand into a fist…?” No, this is already your narrator’s or POV character’s direct observation. Once you get the answer that starts with: “Because that’s what he/she saw/observed/felt/tasted/heard,” you’ve found your showing imagery.
Now, omit the highlighted part and clean up that “no duh” phrase.
He made his hand into a fist and punched the wall, leaving a dent in the plaster.
Almost there. Make it pop, make your writing stand out, by using details that are specific and unique to your world, your characters, your story. Punching the wall may not be appropriate for the President or for the king of a realm, for a lawyer, for a child, for a priest, for a teen fairy-hunter.
***Jack flung his transistor at the wall. It cracked the plaster but landed unharmed. He yanked the soda can rifle out of her grasp and slammed its butt against the transistor’s blinking face, over and over, until the screen cracked and splattered black diodes onto his new green loafers.***
Let’s do another.
Ben loved Linda.
Bam! That’s about as telly as you can get. Ask: How do you know he loved her?
Because he always did things for her, even though she never asked him to do that stuff.
Yes, but how do you know? Give me proof!
Because he always gets up early, takes her car to the gas station, and fills it up on days she has to drive from San Francisco to Newport Beach.
Great. Omit the highlighted part and you have a decent showing instance. But this seems like a pretty big deal if you’re mentioning this example and not another. Put me in the scene by using specific and unique details.
***The voicemail icon was blinking on Linda’s phone: a new message from Ben. She listened to it as she waited for the windshield to clear.
“Hey,” said Ben. “Sorry I wasn’t there when you left this morning. Got called in. I filled up your tank, though, ok? And checked your oil. You’re gonna need an oil change soon. Maybe when you get back. Or if you have time in Newport, all right? And make sure you stop if you’re tired. Before the Grapevine. There’s some places you can stop that don’t cost much. But past the Grapevine, you keep driving if you can. Those places don’t look so good, all right? If you can make it for another half hour or so – if there’s no traffic – you drive all the way to your grandma’s ok?…Bye.”***
We added a lot more words and omitted the word “love,” but we’ve trickled in some key information to build their relationship to the world they live in, and to each other.
What does that voicemail say about Ben? Notice how he keeps saying “ok?” and “all right?”. And how he phrases things like “don’t cost much” and “don’t look so good”? What does that imply about his personality, his level of education? What does the word “your” before “grandma” imply about his relationship with Linda and her family?
How would a teenager react to such a voicemail? How would an adult?
And what does your reaction to this voicemail say about you?
Showing makes scenes emotionally interactive, which keeps a reader engaged and turning the page.
Let’s do one more, narrative description, which is often a wasted opportunity to reveal themes and conflict.
Vanessa’s room was very neat and organized.
How do you know?
Because the bed was made, the desk was free of clutter, paired shoes were arranged on shelves, and all clothes were hung in the closet.
Can you still ask “How do you know?”
No, this is already direct observation. We can omit that highlighted part and use the sentence to show how neat the room is and it would be just fine. Should we settle for “just fine” though? (Correct answer is no. Also, it’s a very passive sentence.)
Let’s improve it. Focus on one or two elements that can represent the entire room and add the specific and unique details we talked about. Show me more about whose room this is.
***I edged around Vanessa’s bed, brushing my fingers across a blue sheet stretched so taut and flat across the top, my touch left no indentation. The clothes in her closet were grouped by type, subgrouped by color, further subgrouped by texture so that lowly cottons were segregated from sumptuous silks by insulating inches of merino wool. I tugged on sleeves, examined tags. Brands I’d only read and didn’t have the courage to say aloud, afraid of mispronouncing them and revealing I had no place in her world: Marchesa, Burberry, Versace, Lanvin.
Much better. Note what we’ve managed to trickle in:
What type of person would make their bed this way and group clothes in their closet in such a manner? Who would wear these brands?
We’ve even managed to inject some tension, some little bits of conflict. We can show how the POV character feels like an outsider in Vanessa’s world by showing how the POV character feels this way in the Vanessa’s room, a microcosm of the story’s world.
“Showing” turns flat statements – “The room was very neat” or “He loved her” – into multifaceted, emotionally interactive scenes.
Instead of you, the writer, telling the reader what to feel and think, you allow the reader to develop their own conclusions by showing a scene through a character’s perspective. It can be thought of as emotion on the page (telling) versus emotion in the reader (showing).
Lastly, check your understanding. Which instances are show, and which are tell?
The battle was difficult. – Can you ask “How do you know?” and get a descriptive response? Yes. This is a Tell instance.
My mother was always strict with us.
The warlord walked away in shame.
My hands shook as I stared at the bomb.
“My mother was always strict with us,” said Jack.
The journey through the mountains was long and difficult.
Learning how to navigate through star fields was long and difficult.
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