We’ve all heard it, the whole argument between showing vs. telling. In fact, we’ve heard it so much that we actually think we understand it. But I’ve got news; it’s perhaps the trickiest concept to master, even for experienced and ‘successful’ authors. Hell, often it can be a bugger just identifying when you’ve faulted in your own writing.
I’m breaking this blog post up into two parts.
Part One—Show vs. Tell: How to Show
Part Two—Show vs. Tell: When to Tell
Because really, it’s not all about showing. As was pointed out to me by one of my trusted writing/editing buddies, ‘reading an entire novel worth of showing would be exhausting.’ Some who prescribe to the black and white theory that it’s show, show, show no matter what will want to come at me with pitchforks and torches, but hear me out. Novel writing is rarely so black and white. Those who follow the point, I’d invite you to share other insights on the topic. Certainly we can learn from each other.
That said, for Part One it is all about showing, because that’s what we’re going to focus on. The hardest thing to get is what really constitutes showing as opposed to telling? For that, there is one question folks ought to consider:
Are you creating the illusion of being there in the story, or are you simply reporting the feeling or action to the reader, or explaining a neat story concept?
Showing is challenging sometimes because it typically takes more work and more words. Often authors get so excited about what they’re writing that they want to plow through it and get it all on paper. The problem is, rather than bringing the reader in they’re really just synopsizing the concept, just in a thorough way.
Bob was mad. (telling)
Bob gritted his teeth and mumbled a cursory. (showing)
The first example paints no picture, simply reports information. We know Bob was mad, but we can’t visualize it without creating our own context and imagery.
The second example doesn’t explicitly say Bob is mad, but he exhibits symptoms of anger which should be enough to allow the reader to quickly draw that conclusion. Furthermore, the reader can see and experience his anger through those symptoms.
So this begs the question, if it’s so difficult to identify when an author is telling and when he or she is showing, what tricks can we adopt to help show a scene?
Dialogue is fast-paced, easy and entertaining to read. Often it can even drive the action. One thing to consider in dialogue (and really, this is a future blog post) is that dialogue does not simply refer to the words spoken by characters. Again, we are striving for show over tell, which means having the character tell the reader what’s up is often still just telling. Therefore, the dialogue ought to include appropriate show in the transitory prose between the spoken dialogue—gestures, expressions, reactions go a long way to help bring the reader inside a character’s mind.
Bob was angry at Jim. (Telling)
“Dammit Jim!” With a face flushed with rage, Bob snatched the wrench from Jim’s hands and flung it against the wall. “You’d best get out of sight this afternoon,” he barked. (Showing)
Use All the Senses
Most people don’t give it much thought, but the way we take in information is much more diverse than simply observing it. Often we respond to sounds, smells, tastes and touch without even thinking about it.
Consider how these examples of sensory-based imagery can evoke specific emotions or associations.
- Grandma’s room smelled of staleness and dust.
- It was as if my head had been stuffed with rocks.
- Hot with fever and a throat that felt like it had been lined with fishhooks.
- The progressive grating of gears and incessant beeping from the assembly line made it difficult to think.
Avoid Vague Words
He was kind.
He showed a lot of courage.
These are a couple examples of descriptions that bear no credence with a reader, because they are subjective and vague. Courage and kindness can mean a great many things depending on who you ask.
Bob was working in the garage. (Telling and ‘working’ is a vague word)
Bob twisted the ratchet, loosening each bolt of the hubcap before letting them fall with a clang. (Showing)
You get the idea (I hope). There is a big difference between showing vs. telling, and while most of you are probably saying to yourself, “Yes, but I don’t do that,” take a close, close look and you might be surprised at some unintended tells floating in there.
That said, it’s not a bad thing to tell! In fact, many times it’s absolutely necessary. But we’ll save that argument for part two.