Sunday, July 17, 2011

Writing Advice 5 — Show and Tell

Perhaps the cardinal rule of writing is Show Don’t Tell. It is also perhaps the one thing that can make the biggest improvement to any writer’s work. Like all rules it can, and should be, broken from time to time, but if you’re going to break it, make sure you are doing it for the right reason.

So what does Show Don’t Tell mean?

Tell: Daniel went outside where it was cold. 
Show: Stepping outside Daniel shivered and buttoned his coat.

In the first sentence I told you it was cold outside. In the second sentence I never said anything about the temperature, but I showed you events that would lead you to determine on your own that it was cold out. When you do this, you invite the reader to become a participant in your writing. You aren’t just being told a story, you are being given clues and you get to take part by putting the pieces together and drawing your own conclusion. In a way it is like the old game show Password. This technique keeps the reader engaged in the story. When a reader makes connections, when they figure little things out on their own, it makes them feel intelligent and good about themselves, and when a reader is made to feel good about themselves while reading your work, they enjoy it more.

Telling a reader everything is not only boring, but insulting. Most people don’t like being talked down to. They don’t like to have everything explained anymore than they like to have their meat cut for them by a waiter. It suggests they are incompetent. In addition, Showing also causes the reader to experience the story as if they were there. It places them in the heart of the action. They can see, feel, and smell everything as it happens like an eyewitness. Emotions are heighted. This is so much more fun than having someone tell you the story of what they saw happen.

The problem is that Showing takes a lot more time than Telling. Even in the very simple example above, the Showing sentence is longer. When dealing with more complex ideas, what you could Tell in a few sentences could take thirty pages of Showing.

Daniel spent the next two weeks at his grandmother’s in Tampa trying to act normal while avoiding any direct lies. He managed it well enough to suit his conscience before flying back to New York.

In a novel these two sentences could have easily taken 10,000-20,000 words to Show, and if this scene is integral to the story, then it should, but if it is merely a necessary event that has no real bearing on the plot, then it can be reduced to a summary. But Telling should be kept to a minority in a story, like a brief aside, a sorbet between scenes—used to avoid boring the reader with unnecessary details and to vary the pace.

 Most inexperienced writers Tell rather than Show, because it is faster and easier. Training yourself to Show is hard and takes a lot longer. Often it seems unnecessary, or worse, impossible. Particularly when conforming to Point of View constraints. The results however, I have found to always be far better than opting for the quick and easy. Not only is the writing improved, but the story can often grow in unexpected and positive ways as a result. Just working out the problem of how to Show something tricky, like guilt, can force a writer to develop constructs that can be used to add greater depth to the story later.

In Riyria I summarized (told) the story of how Amilia became Modina’s secretary, then picked up the story at the first crisis point and began Showing that scene. When my wife read Nyphron Rising, she felt that I was Telling too much. As a result I spent three full chapters dramatizing what I previously summed up in two paragraphs. Not only were the results a better read, but they allowed me to explore the characterization of the participants and to better flesh out the setting. Two new characters were born as a result and they became vital to the story in the rework. The added effort returned more than the sum of its work in benefits.

So to answer part of the question I posed in my previous post on writing, one of the ways writers develop Setting, Characterization, and Plot is by Showing rather than Telling. In the previous very simple example where Daniel steps outside, just by Showing instead of Telling, I added volumes to Daniel’s characterization. The reader knows nothing of Daniel personally from the first sentence, but in the second we know that Daniel is a male, and that he is sensitive, refined and the reader has a pretty good idea of his body type. How?

By Showing rather than Telling, I was forced to explain that Daniel wore a coat, and that the coat had buttons, not a zipper. I was not trying to explain that Daniel wore a coat, it was the result of my trying to explain that it was cold out, without saying it was cold. However, the result was that I discovered Daniel was wearing a buttonable coat. Without realizing it I just added to Daniel’s characterization. He is now the kind of person who wears a coat when it is cold (some tough, manly men don’t, so he’s a bit more sensitive.) Buttons suggest cloth or wool rather than nylon or leather. Readers instantly imagine an overcoat, probably of black or dark blue, or maybe a camel, because those are the colors of button coats (this suggests Daniel is well dressed, well dressed usually suggests a level of refinement.) Daniel also shivered. Without knowing, do you think he is heavy or thin? And of course, I had to use the pronoun “his.” It is a pretty simple sentence, but the adjustments I was forced to make to change it from Tell to Show, added a surprising amout of characterization. Just imagine what Showing would do to a character defined by more than eight words.

A reader might not grasp all those insights, but when fleshing out a story it isn’t only the reader who benefits. The author also gains a better understanding of their own characters with each word they put down. By forcing themselves to Show, they put down lots more words, and each buttoned coat, and each shiver helps detail that image in a writer’s mind, and the clearer that image becomes, the more vivid the illustration they deliver to the reader. 

A huge help in Showing is the Point of View control, and that will be the topic of my next Sunday post. Until then, that’s the bell so remember, no running in the halls.


  1. It's also a nice way to fatten up one's mss. Nice post. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Here's one I always forget about.... all those pesky details. I like the point though that showing should particularly be used in areas to drive character development or emotional connection, and that there are some cases with mundane details... that need to be just told. I found a fun website one Showing/Telling w/other examples in addition:

  3. Thanks Jess and Jaq! Both good points.

  4. Another great lesson, thank you Michael.
    And thanks Jess for that link.

  5. What about describing setting - just descriptions of a place - is that telling or showing?

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