Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The phrase “show, don’t tell” is a popular one, insisting that showing is always the superior form of writing, but some persuasive voices warn against this line of thinking:
Needless to say, many great novelists combine ‘dramatic’ showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration… the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out.
Francine Prose (author of Reading like a Writer)
More often than not, preference is given to showing something over telling something, even if it isn’t the best approach. Writers tend to look at showing and telling in “black or white” / “good or bad” terms … but it’s not that simple.
It’s also not that hard. Let’s have a look at how you can choose between showing and telling, and how you can strike a balance between the two to avoid becoming a show-it-all writer. But, before we do this, there is one thing you need to keep in mind:
Readers contribute to the story too
A writer’s fear (or possibly biggest pet peeve) is ambiguous communication. There is a reason why many obsess over whether to substitute a full-stop with a comma, or embark on nightly thesaurus raids. What this is often at the expense of, is forgetting that readers bring an important element to the table: imagination.
It is the imagination of the reader which relieves writers from making note of every detail of, say, a character’s day-to-day existence. Nobody actually wants the details about how a character woke up, brushed his teeth, showered, breakfasted, read the paper, then went to work. These details add absolutely nothing to our understanding of the character’s personal development, and zilch in driving the plot forward. After all, it’s pretty clear that said character did not arrive at work in his pajamas without explicitly showing this.
But then … how will the reader know my character?
Of course, there’s more to showing and telling than what meets the eye.
While readers bring their imagination to the story, the literature gods have appointed writers to create multi-dimensional characters that are imprinted in readers’ minds.
Familiar fictional characters like Miss Havisham, Jane Austen’s Emma, Jay Gatsby or even Gandalf are like well-known friends because their depth has exceeded the constraints of time. Naturally, you too would want to create something similar. But how do you choose between showing or telling information the reader needs to know? Consider these examples:
Jake slumped heavily in his chair, shoulders hunched, every nerve in his brain buzzing as his thoughts collided with one another.
We are shown Jake is stressed, his mind is overworked, and there’s a sense of resignation in his posture. But, what do we learn about Jake here? We are shown that he is suffering from some internal trauma, but are not told anything of the reasons behind his conflict. We know that Jake has the capacity to be preoccupied and helpless. We are not told what it takes for Jake to reach such a stage. In contrast:
Jake slumped heavily in his chair. What on earth was he going to tell her when he got home? That he had spent every last penny of their savings? That they would not have a single penny to their name when they both retired? No 40th anniversary boat cruise? Could he face his wife as he broke the news that he had stupidly spent their collective savings? And on what? A drunken gamble?
Do you see the clear difference here?
This example tells us so much more; that Jake has made a mistake, what his mistake is, and that he is ashamed of his mistake because it now means he has to confess something to someone he loves and does not want to disappoint. Jake’s external reaction (“slumped heavily”) is validated once insight into his internal psyche is revealed.
Suddenly, Jake embodies his character. Now, as a reader, you have another scene to look forward to which thickens the plot to a possible pivotal climax: Jake’s impending confession.
Understand that less is more
A great example of this is Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie is young and insightful; his judgments of the world he finds himself in are often colored by a deep sadness. Charlie’s troubled first person narration means that everything we “see” is filtered through his perspective.
Take a look at this passage from The Perks:
This is happening, I am here and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful […] You stand up and see the lights on the building and everything makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment, I swear we are infinite.
Notice how this passage is filled with telling. Does it make it any less touching? Of course not. Chbosky refrains from showing us how and why Charlie perceives the girl to be beautiful. Or how the music makes him feel. Or what the landscape looks like. Telling us outright that Charlie is happy using the word “infinite” creates magical imagery and it works perfectly.
Chbosky’s minimalistic style enhances this particular moment at this particular time in Charlie’s life. Subtle undertones of emotion hit the reader right in the gut. The reader fuses their own experiences into the spaces Chboksy leaves open by omitting showiness.
The result? We feel this scene.
So do I avoid showing altogether?
Quite simply, No.
Showing is important. Just not at the expense of telling. The mistake lies in assuming that “showing” equates to showing everything rather than revealing what’s important.
In other words, show enough to tease your reader, but don’t bare everything so the reader becomes disengaged from the story. The clincher is striking a balance between the show and tell approach.
Here’s what to look out for:
- Do you have huge chunks of writing filled with imagery that serves no purpose at all?
If you have, then hit ‘delete’. Prose shouldn’t feel heavy. All this does is grind the pace and movement of the story to a resounding halt.
- Learn to show through dialogue. The way we speak and the words we use is reflective of who we are (think accents or dialects for example). We rarely speak in crafted, polished sentences, so why should our characters?
Showing through dialogue adds realism to a character by allowing them to vividly vocalize thoughts and emotion so we have some idea of a character’s internal predicament.
- Rather than showing everything there is to know about a character or setting, be a choosy show-er and reveal only what is particular or out of the ordinary to avoid clichés.
Consider: is there a particular character that is generally rather stoic throughout the text, but is suddenly overcome with seething anger? This would be a moment to show as there is an emotional significance to this scene; you want your reader to remember the character’s development at this particular time.
- Ask yourself: if you were a reader of your piece, what bits would you skip over or cut out?
Are you a show-er or a tell-er? Do you favor one approach over the other? Which do you have more difficulties with, and why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.