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Show Don’t Tell

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SHOWING NOT TELLING

“Show don’t tell,” is common advice to aspiring authors, but what does it mean? What is showing and how does it work? Is telling always bad?

“Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what’s on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling. Telling, on the other hand, is just like you’re recounting the movie to a friend. Which renders the more memorable experience?”

James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication

“Readers have high expectations. They don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves.”

—Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus

What does it mean to show and not tell?

  • Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and physical manifestations of feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and intellectualized labeling words.
  • James Scott Bell talks about Jurassic Park the movie—scene when Sam Neill’s character first sees the living dinosaur “in a story you would describe it…[like this]: ‘Mark’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He tried to take a breath, but breath did not come…’ The reader feels the emotions right along with the character.” Compare that to this: “Mark was stunned and frightened.”
    • In the first passage, the writer describes what the character is doing and experiencing in his body, and lets the reader draw their own conclusions about what the character is feeling.
    • In the second passage, the writer tells the reader what the character is feeling, which prevents the reader from experiencing that feeling directly.

So, what’s the difference? Showing leaves room for a reader to inhabit a character, to walk a mile in chafing army boots or wobbly platform shoes, to live vicariously (without the interposing narrator buzzing in the reader’s ear).

Lamps

Lamps

Showing

  • actions
  • words
  • thoughts
  • body sensations
  • immediate
  • immersive
  • takes more gradual steps

Telling

  • filter words, aka, “the Frame” that puts the reader outside the experience, watching the character go through it: she saw, he heard, she mused, he felt, she wondered, he realized, she thought, he surmised, he concluded, etc.
  • emotional labels: angry, shocked, terrified, alarmed, irritated, etc.
  • exposition
  • summarization of events
  • distant and distancing
  • a shortcut

Why Show and Not Tell?

Why is it more compelling to show and not tell? Why does it give a more direct experience?

  • Showing is more impactful because of how human beings experience our lives.
  • When something happens that matters to us, we feel bodily sensations and we think thoughts about what’s going on.
  • What we don’t do in the moment is say to ourselves, “Gee, I’m angry.” or “Hey, I’m scared.” Putting a label on our feelings is an intellectual exercise we usually do later. It is generally not helpful in the moment. Rather than thinking, “I’m alarmed and very angry at Sheldon now,” we think, “I’m going to punch him in the face. But I can’t. If I do, I’m fired. Oh, but it would feel so good!”
  • We come to any text with skepticism. If there’s too much telling, we don’t buy into it. We want to be shown. Showing builds trust with the reader.

Margaret Mayo McGlynn Books on Writing

When is it OK to Tell?

We actually need both showing and telling to make a seamless narrative in fiction or memoir.

  • It’s OK to tell when you are summarizing.
  • Remember in our Scene Structure topic we talked about the difference between Scene and Summary?
  • Writers summarize events the reader needs to know, but that are not dramatic enough or important enough to put in a scene. Summary is Telling.
  • Also, it’s OK to tell, just a little bit, in mid-scene, to give the reader information they need to understand the action, aka, exposition, but a very little goes along way.

Example of Telling that works: Chapter 1 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Our house is almost at the edge of the Seam. I only have to pass a few gates to reach the scruffy field called the Meadow. Separating the Meadow from the woods, in fact enclosing all of District 12, is a high chain-link fence topped with barbedwire loops. In theory, it’s supposed to be electrified twentyfour hours a day as a deterrent to the predators that live in the woods — packs of wild dogs, lone cougars, bears — that used to threaten our streets. But since we’re lucky to get two or 6 three hours of electricity in the evenings, it’s usually safe to touch.

Why does TELLING work here?

  • The details are visual and give us a series of snapshots like a little collage: the gates, the scruffy field, wild dogs, cougars, bears. This engages our visual sense.
  • In this case, the author needs to establish quickly that the story takes place in a world unlike our own. (Necessary in all Fantasy and Science Fiction.)
  • It establishes the character of the heroine—her dispassionate voice about these things shows her bravery and practicality, her survival skills.
  • The details imply a dangerous and difficult world, which amps up the drama.
  • It (and the rest of the exposition that follows it ) sets the stage for the next little scene, which is below:

In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. The sight of him waiting there brings on a smile. Gale says I never smile except in the woods.

But wait—that first and last sentence are also telling, right?

  • Yes.
  • Not so cut and dried, is it?
  • Maybe she didn’t need that sentence? So why did she put it in? Maybe because the audience is YA and generally wants to see a potential love interest early on?
  • Either way, Showing and Telling is a balancing act. Collins uses telling as a shortcut here, but she already has a set of compelling questions going that keep the reader plunging forward.
  • Whether you are showing or telling, what’s important is including small details that suggest a larger picture. That is an art, not a science.

writer_author_YA_Fantasy_books_travelHow to Show: EXERCISE

Write 1-2 paragraphs about a single incident with a high emotional charge, according to the specs below. Be disciplined. Don’t let yourself veer away from the requirements.

  • 1-2 Paragraphs
  • about a single emotionally charged moment
  • First person
  • No adverbs – instead choose a more active verb
  • No adjectives (except factual ones like colors, size, shape)
  • Only describe information that comes through your senses (not your evaluating mind)
  • Not allowed to say “I felt…” Instead, describe the physical sensations making up the emotional reaction, e.g, “My cheeks were hot,” or “my stomach lurched.”
  • Express no opinion, no judgment, just describe what happened and how you reacted physically.

SUMMARY

  • Remember, showing directly immerses your reader in the experience of your characters by directly portraying action, thought, and reaction right there in the dramatic events of the story.
  • Telling, on the other hand, gives information, but in a non-immediate summarization.
  • Show in your scenes; tell in your summary sections.
  • When you tell, include interesting, unexpected details that paint a picture of a larger world, process or character.
  • Showing is more immediate. Use it for the dramatic parts to really hook your readers.
  • Telling helps get your readers from point A to point B in your story, and gives them key backstory that will help them understand your main character’s struggle.
  • Showing bonds your reader to your characters in your story.
  • Showing is why your reader picked up your book.
  • Telling can help your reader skip the boring parts in your storyline and get right to the dramatic parts.

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