Being a Better Writer: Show Versus Tell

This post was originally written and posted May 26th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Hoo boy. What have I done?

I sat down to look at today’s blog topic, thought to myself “I should do something quick and easy since it’s Memorial Day,” and promptly my brain started buzzing on this topic.

Great job brain. Fortunately, this shouldn’t take long.

Alright, so Show VS Tell is one of those areas in writing that is almost guaranteed to start some sort of debate. If you want to troll a writing panel without asking a loaded question (like how they feel Twilight matches up as a *shudder* classic of American literature, more on that another time), start asking them about “show don’t tell.”

Because to start with, that phrase right there is wrong. It is not ever show don’t tell. Ever. I’m going to repeat that, bolded and italicized, so we can make this perfectly clear.

It’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell.

The first is a balanced document that serves both as an active description of events as well as a direct informant of the parts that matter. The second is a flowery piece of overdone prose that is like a peacock: gaudy, overdone, and ultimately doing little else but looking pretty.

Worse, show don’t tell (the false one) persists, because a lot of amateur writers take it to heart and then pass it on to others. In the process, they even come up with long-winded examples of “always show” and “never tell.” I’ve seen writing advice blogs online as well as other prominent “sources” of fiction review in some communities take huge lengths to drive home this idea of “show, never tell.”

This is 100% wrong, and usually, a case of someone or some group deciding that they’re smart enough thanks to their four weeks of reviewing fanfiction to start giving out advice.

It’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell. Yes, I’m going to repeat that a lot in today’s post.

Alright, since I’ve beaten this point almost enough so far (show versus tell, not show don’t tell), let’s get a bit more into the meat of things. What is showing, and telling?

Here we go again. Because this is an area where once again there’s a bit of a difference of opinion. In fact, I can recall one week on a site where two different writers (both of whom knew their stuff pretty well) each did a public post on showing and telling. Taken alone, both were well-thought out and decently informative (if a little obtusely verbose in one’s case). The amusing part however, was where they both used similar examples … and then disagreed with one another over whether it was showing or telling.

Uh-oh.

It gets worse, too. I’ve seen forum threads dedicated to rewriting sentences so that they are more show, less tell, and watched debates spring up for both sides as some writers claim a rewrite is show, while others claim it’s just more words to a tell. So clearly we have a disconnect here.

Which means that no matter what I’m about to write, I can guarantee that there are going to be a whole host of people that will actively disagree, and will try to debate me on it. Which isn’t going to happen, because I’ve got better things to do than argue with a random person on the internet over whether or not my showing is actually showing or what the proper balance is (more on that later).

So, here’s my take on things. Showing and telling. First of all, let’s tackle tell, because it’s where everyone starts out. Which is why in grade school you’d be pressured with show don’t tell; you had one down, but not the other (and as a reminder, it’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell, last time,).

Tell is a direct statement, coming from either a character or the narration. For instance, if you’re reading a scene and there is a line that says “The sun was bright overhead,” well, that’s tell. You could do the same with “the room was cold” or “there was a green sports car parked in the drive.” Tell can be in narration or in dialogue (after all, most of the time when we speak, we’re very direct), and it’s one of those things that will come up anywhere. But it’s easiest to think of telling as a direct statement of something in a state. “Melissa was running,” for example. Or even “he ran towards the door.” Again, I’m telling you what’s going on here, or what you’re seeing.

Now, what happens with show? I tend to think of show as writing what the character experiences. Others have described it as “writing what the camera would see” or “writing so the reader sees it” rather than just understanding what happened. Others have called it “putting in the details.” Me, I like the first one, because my writing is very character-centric. I want the reader to experience what the character does, rather than just reading about what he/she did. So let’s revisit one of those earlier lines. How about “the room was cold.” Let’s change this up and make it show, not tell, that the room was cold.

“Samantha suppressed a shiver as she moved into the room, clutching her arms tightly against her sides. Her breath misted in front of her, wispy and faint, and the telltale prickle of goosebumps spread up and down her arms as the room’s chilling cold seemed to sink into her.”

Ooh, that’s different. It’s a little rough, but following an edit, it would probably be fine. Now what we have is two sentences that show our character’s reaction to the cold room, rather than just telling our reader outright that the room is cold (note that if you want to be picky, you can still say that I’m “telling” you about her arms or goosebumps, but big deal, it’s showing that the room is cold, so deal with it).

Fortunately enough, there are plenty of other examples online, so I feel that I don’t need to get too deep into this. The point is, when showing, you’re painting a picture. Often this is where prose comes in (which has been described as the art of using as many words as possible to say as little as possible), to give the descriptions and whatnot a little more punch. In any case, it’s what it says on the tin. You want to show the reader something rather than tell them. If you want some more examples of this, the internet is full of written examples of show. Crud, pick up one of your favorite books and read a chapter, try to find an example of show.

Now, let’s look at one last thing. It’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell (I lied about the last one being the last time). No story is going to be entirely show. Why?

Because that’s boring. Ever listen to a speaker who kept droning on and on about stuff that really only slightly related to the actual topic at hand? One who seemed to take ten times the time to get to the point? That’s showing. There are times when showing works and spices up your story, and there are times when it doesn’t. This is why it’s show versus tell. You need both.

Case in point: Fight scenes. No one wants to read a fight scene where every move is a long, drawn out show of a paragraph. Which is why a fight scene will often be a barrage of fast, rapid tells mixed with show … the reader wants the impact, but they also want the fight to be over before they finish the book. So a good writer will mix the two, using tells to cover the stuff that needs to be covered quickly, while saving the show for the stuff that you want to really impact the reader.

This works in standard writing too. You’re going to write scenes where you want to mention something, but don’t want to go into a ton of detail on an obscure portion. Sometimes, we want to tell.

What’s your balance going to be? Well, that’s up to you. You don’t want to be 100% one way or another, but you’ll want a balance of some kind. Will it be 50-50? 70-30? That’s up to you, and your story. It’s even up to your character. When I write a character like Steel, who is very direct, I use a lot more tell than when I write Sabra, who is a very “thinky” individual. You’ll find your own balance with each work.

In the end, the important thing to remember is that is a balance. Showing and telling are both equally important to your story. Show is the tool for engaging the reader, for bringing details to life and making your world live, but tell is also vital to keeping your story from bogging down under its own details. Too much of one or the other, and your readers will let you know (or worse, leave).

So, if I had to summarize things today, I think it would be it’s show versus tell, not show don’t tell!

Alright, I kid, but I really wanted to drive that point home. Like many things, showing and telling are a balancing act. It’s up to you to decide when and where each will fit, and how they will fit. You can’t do one or the other, and it’s important that you know what each one is so you can use them to their full potential. A story with a great balance of show versus tell will still be a slog if all what should have been told is shown and vice-versa.

So, figure out which is which. Practice taking sentences that are tells and turning them into shows. Pay attention to how your favorite authors mix the two. And then, try to put what you’ve learned into play with your own writing. Take what comes back at you with a grain of salt (as I said, there are a lot of low-level critics out there who have no idea what they’re talking about), and keep looking to make both your show and your tell work for the story.

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