Show and Tell

Some people say “show don’t tell” but most fiction contains both showing and telling.

It’s really a question of how you impart information to the reader at any given time. Is it better to be descriptive and show the reader what is happening? Or is it better to be direct and tell the reader what is happening?

Depending on the circumstances, your story will call for different techniques at different times.

For example, sometimes it’s important to tell the reader directly:

War was coming.

But to keep it immersive, you would surround it with details:

War was coming. He could see it in the grim frowns of the soldiers at the gate, their weary eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale signs of the encroaching violence.

If the coming war is an important point, you would go on to add further immersive details that build evidence for the reader.

Children skulked indoors, peering out through windows and doors as the city streets filled with soldiers, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms, boys and old men drafted to man the walls while the real warriors fought hand-to-hand in the open field.

Even though that is somewhat immersive, it’s still a lot of information packed into one sentence. It’s still telling a lot more than it’s showing.

If we want to show more, we’d need to expand it more, and at this point you’d be thinking of the best way to convey the information immersively from whatever perspective you’re using, eg. I’d have to place my point-of-view character somewhere near these events in order to ‘show’ them more effectively through his eyes.

Tom frowned. From a distance they looked sound enough, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms as they stood at ease in the courtyard awaiting orders. But as he approached them Tom spotted the grey hair of old Mr Jones poking out from under his shiny black helm, and the pimply face of a boy scarcely older than Tom, his wide eyes glancing this way and that as if expecting the enemy to jump out at any moment.

Tom’s heart sank.

There were too many of them, faces old and young scattered throughout the garrison. Grandfathers and mere boys called to man the defences against an enemy they barely knew, let alone knew how to defeat.  Where were the soldiers? The real defenders?

As you can see, it’s possible to turn a few words into a few paragraphs if you so choose. The real question is whether you need to for the sake of the story. How much detail is too much? How much is too little? You want the story to be immersive without dragging into pointless details.

Even though that last excerpt shows more than the one before it, it also adds more telling. It tells additional details that didn’t exist before. This is why “show don’t tell” can be confusing, because they will almost always coexist and depending on the style of the text it simply won’t be possible or desirable to eradicate all telling.

Ultimately, what matters is how well the text reads, and how immersive it is. In my experience, excessive telling or insufficient showing suggests that the story has not been plotted or drafted enough. The plot is, in a sense, the ultimate tell. My suspicion is that when people tell too much in a draft, it’s because they haven’t first laid out those very direct details in a plot and instead they intersperse the narrative with character, setting or plot points.

While it’s still early days for me, so far my plot and my drafts have all moved in the direction of greater elaboration and showing. In plot form, the excerpt above might be as brief as “Tom realises that the defenders aren’t professional soldiers, and so he….”

This is enough to further the plot, but obviously not enough to interest or immerse the reader. Hence the first draft is an attempt to convert these plot points into immersive scenes, like story-boarding a screenplay.

That’s how it’s turned out for me, anyway. But you could argue that all these ideas are subordinate to the simple imperative of writing a readable story, using whatever works for you.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Show and Tell

    • Thanks Lion.
      I think a lot of the supposed rules are only relevant for diagnosing problems with the text. That’s largely where they arise from anyway, I think. If everyone wrote well there would be no need for rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s