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.

Fiction update: my writing timeline

So, in 2007-08 I wrote a novel.

We don’t talk about the novel.

In 2010 I had my first article published, and in the six years since have had 101 articles published online, as well as some in hardcopy through my old job in bioethics, where I really got my start in writing.

In December 2012 I revisited fiction, reviewed my old work and started thinking about where I went wrong.

I don’t remember the details, but let’s guess that in early 2014 I started seriously trying to work out how to write fiction. That brings us up to the end of 2015 where I finally found an approach that has worked for me.

Here’s the detailed timeline, derived the various documents I’ve been working on:

November 21st 2015 – started plot

21 hours of writing and 7,000 words

December 21st 2015 – started first draft.

85 hours of writing and 36,000 words

February 18th 2016 – finished first draft.

Eviscerating critique by wife

February 21st 2016 – started second draft.

Still a huge amount of work to do!

It’s been surprisingly difficult, but I have to say that it completely overshadows my nonfiction work in terms of the creative process and personal impact.

I even wrote on this blog some time ago, when I was struggling with fiction, that nonfiction seemed superior because it dealt entirely with reality.

But now it feels like nonfiction has lost its appeal. Whatever I might write at present would feel ineffectual and ultimately pointless. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but I’m glad to have finally discovered the real power of fiction.

More on this later.