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Show vs. Tell

 
 
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Old 02-06-2009, 11:33 AM
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Default Show vs. Tell


Show, don't tell!

If ever a statement came like a blunt kick to the novice writer's head, this is it. It's brutal, exclamatory, assertive. And terribly vague.

Oftentimes, new writers receive this bit of advice, but fail to receive an explanation of any logic or meaning behind it. Show. Tell. What exactly are these, how are they different, and how does a writer go about implementing them into his work successfully?

Let's take a look at each.

Telling

Telling is easy. It's simply thattelling. It was a sunny day. Despite previous warnings, Robert acted like a jerk. Rhynny hated her lunch, but she ate it anyway.

All of these statements serve one purpose: to tell the reader how things are, what's going on, or who's feeling what. And telling sentences like thesewhether they are simple, complex or compoundstrung together into paragraphs, are known collectively as narrative summary.

If we look at the definitions of each word, narrative and summary, we can get a good idea of what narrative summary really is. Narrative—a recounting of past events; summary—a condensation of main points.
Thus, narrative summary could be defined as the concentrated telling of a story's primary points, or a concise report of prior happenings, all relayed through the words of a narrator.


Because of its foreshortened nature, narrative summary tends to read as easily as something recited to a friend over the phone or at a casual lunch meeting. A second-hand account, if you will, with a “here's what had happened” or “this is the way it was or looked” feel to it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even in today's world of writing, where immediate scenes (or showing) have taken precedence, narrative summary serves an important purpose. It can:
  • Vary a piece's rhythm—It slows things down, allows the reader to take a breather after a grueling or lengthy scene. A story filled entirely with action can be exhausting for the reader, and a varied rhythm can help temper this.
  • Help condense repetitive action—A scene that happens time and again need not be stretched out into further scenes, time and again. Shown once and, since the reader will know what the scene consists of, others can be summarized thereafter. Or summarize less important scenes similar to a key scene later on.
  • Aid plot development involving a minor character—Instead of having to introduce a minor character at length, or for one that's already been introduced but his interaction with the main character doesn't warrant a full scene, narrative summary can be used. Needed information is delivered without straying unnecessarily from the plot line.
  • Transition between scenes—A brief event can smooth the way between bits of action or character interaction, without leaving an illogical gap or a sudden, unintentional jump in time. So what does telling look like? To find a perfect example, one need search no further than a young children's book. With the aid of pictures, many of these books are constructed through telling; nothing needs to be shown.
Take Leo Lionni's book Frederick, the tale of a mouse with a special gift for words, for example:

“All along the meadow where the cows grazed and the horses ran, there was an old stone wall. In that wall, not far from the barn and granary, a chatty family of field mice had their home.” (pages 1-3)

Simple, straightforward telling. The reader is told the place and the characters involved; neither are described through a particular character's viewpoint. But since the pictures do the visual work, there is no need for any elaboration. Things are told as straight fact: this is the way it is and here's what happened. A concentration of the story's primary points.

Sometimes, however, narrative summary in more detailed works can engage a reader very well. Take a passage from chapter one of Tolkien's The Hobbit, for example:

“It [the hole] had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel; a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats.” (page15)

And the passage goes on to say: “. . . bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining rooms . . . [and] deep-set round windows looking over his garden and meadow beyond . . .” (page 15)

Here, Tolkien, through omniscient narration,tells the reader what the hobbit hole looks like, rather than bring the reader into the dwelling through the main character's eyes. But because of its structure and the nature of the words chosen, the summary is just as engaging as a first-hand account would be, especially coming directly after his introductory paragraph:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it . . . it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.” (The Hobbit, page 15)


Showing

For many writers, showing can be a bit more difficult. Short of physically bringing a story world and its events to a reader (which, on many levels, is impossible), the writer is forced to recreate it through the written word; a task not easily done.

Showing entails wrapping the story around the reader through character action, interaction and dialogue, and through the use of the main character's senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—to describe the surroundings and relate a series of events to a reader. He is not told flat-out how things look or the way things are, but is instead pulled in by the main character through his role in the story. A first-hand account, in other words. And all of this can be accomplished through what are called immediate scenes.

If we pick apart the phrase “immediate scene,” we can discover its underlying meaning. Immediate—occurring at once; scene—something seen by a viewer. Thus, an immediate scene could be defined as a real-time unfolding of events that happens before a reader. But since the reader can't really see the goings-on of a story, the writer must manipulate the mind's eye, or the imagination, through immediate scenes in order to bring the tale to life.

Yet, because of their complexity and involvement, immediate scenes are often harder to write. They tend to be longer, contain settings and some type of action (usually dialogue), and are constructed out of a series of relevant details to form a pattern through which a reader can logically infer what's happening. And this is the biggest difference between showing and telling: reader inference versus writer relation.

So, what do immediate scenes look like? Take this bit of narrative summary, for example:

Sarah loved her horse, Star. Every morning she went to the barn to feed and groom the mare, even in the wintertime. She would give her carrots and bits of apple as treats, then clean out her stall and put in fresh shavings for her bedding. The barn manager was always impressed with this.

With a little effort, we can expand this into an immediate scene by folding it around the reader through action and dialogue, and through the character's senses:

Sarah arrived at the barn with muck boots on, pitchfork in hand and grooming bucket by her side. Pale morning sunlight filtered through the evergreens alongside the meadow, where a new snowfall had blanketed the stunted field grasses beyond the fence. A chill nipped her face. She shivered and blew into her cupped palms before rolling back the sliding door.

At the entrance, Sarah paused to take in the sweet scent of hay, the rustle of livestock. Inside, her mare, Star, nickered from the corner stall. Sarah smiled, dipping her hand into her pocket, feeling for the bits of carrot and apple she had stored away, then eyed the pile of fresh shavings and the wheelbarrow in the corner of the barn.

First things first, she thought.

“Right on time,” a voice said behind her, “as usual. You have to be the most dedicated horsewoman I've ever seen, Sarah.”

Sarah turned to watch the barn manager lean over and pick up her grooming bucket. He straightened and smiled.

“Yep,” replied Sarah. “Dedicated to the last.”


Notice the difference? The first gives a straight-fact rundown of Sarah's love for and dedication to her horse, even through the wintertime, while the second sets the reader beside Sarah in the cold winter morning and shows him her love and dedication through Sarah's actions and dialogue.

But even within larger immediate scenes, showing on a smaller scale can take place, most notably for setting and character description, and for character emotion. Consider this bit from Rand and Robyn Miller's novel,
Myst, The book of Atrus
:



“You want me to dress the child for the journey?”

Gehn did not answer, and for a moment she [Anna] thought that maybe he had not heard, but when she went to speak again, he turned and glared at her.

“Keep it. Bury it with its mother, if you must. But don't bother me with it. You saved it, you look after it.”

She bristled, then held the child out, over the gap.

“This is your son, Gehn. Your son! You gave him life. You are responsible for him. That is the way of things in this world.”

Gehn turned away. (page 2)


Instead of directly stating, “Gehn was a callous man. He disowned his infant son and his mother, Anna, was angry over it,” the reader can easily infer this through the characters' actions and dialogue. Gehn glares and turns away. Anna “bristles” before rebuking Gehn. The reader is shown their emotions and the tension between them.

And in sentences from further passages: “Gehn stamped across the churned ground and quickly climbed the steps, pushing past her roughly to go inside.” (page 2) and “She made to give the child to Gehn, but he brushed past her and stepped out onto the rope bridge.” (page 3), the reader's assumptions are backed up.

In the prologue to John Saul's Comes the Blind Fury, the reader is asked right from the beginning to form his own descriptive opinion of the main character, an unnamed girl of twelve:

“She moved slowly along the path, her step careful, yet not hesitant. The path was familiar to her, and she knew almost by instinct when to move to the left, when to veer to the right, when to stay close to the middle of the trail. . . . she looked more like an old woman than a child of twelve, and the walking stick she always carried with her did nothing to lessen the impression of age.” (page 1)

The reader is provided with hints—precise and deliberate movements, an instinctual approach, a walking stick—all before Saul mentions anything about the girl's blindness. He has expected the reader to glean this information all before he tells him that he's correct in his assumptions.


So which is better, showing or telling?

Neither. Each serves a purpose within writing, and it's up to the writer to decide which parts of his story need to be shown and which parts can be told. In general, key moments that drive the plot forward, actions that develop a character, and character description or one that provides a setting are shown, whereas bits of background and exposition, small shifts in time or transitions, and repetitive actions are all told.

But these are only guidelines. Like everything, it varies from writer to writer, story to story, depending on how an individual chooses to construct his tale. A writer may rely more heavily on narrative summary for a short story that spans a long period of time and devote more immediate scenes to a full-length novel with fewer restrictions on word count.

According to Rennie Browne and Dave King, two long-time editors and authors of the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: “. . . thanks to the influence of movies and television, readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes. Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did.” (page 3)

But even they acknowledge that “show, don't tell” isn't a rule set in stone and that “There are going to be times when telling will create more engagement than showing.” (page 11)


Show, don't tell!

Right.

The blunt kick has been softened. Logic and meaning have been offered. Ambiguity has been removed.

Now it's up to you, the writer, to wrap your story around your potential readers in a subtle balance of narrative summary and immediate scenes. A confident writer isn't afraid to both show and tell, but he also knows when, how and where to implement each in order to present his story in the best possible light.

Show, don't tell.

Not such an ironclad rule after all, is it?

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