November 28, 2005

Notes: Show, Don’t Tell, by Stamford Jackson

Show, Donít Tell
By Stamford Jackson

This is an article I found on the net Ė canít remember where. It may be useful when considering this often discussed problem:

If you've been writing long, and probably even if you haven't, you'll have heard the old writing advice, "Show, Don't Tell." This is good advice, to a point, but sometimes you can't avoid telling rather than showing. We'll explore both in this article.

Think about real life for a moment. If someone told you that a lion had escaped from the local zoo and was running loose around your neighbourhood, you'd probably want to find out if it was really true before investing in a high-powered rifle (though you might bring your cat inside and avoid going out yourself, just in case). If they actually took you to see the lion wandering about on the streets, you'd likely take protective precautions right away.

You may wonder what escaped lions have to do with writing. It's not the lions, but the normal human reaction to being told something versus being shown something (especially if that something is out of the ordinary). In the first case—being told—you may or may not believe the teller, and are likely to want further proof. In the second case—seeing for yourself—you'll probably believe right away (or at least be more easily convinced.

When to Show, Not Tell

Just as in our lion example, readers are more likely to believe something they are shown than something they are told. This is why the saying "Show, Don't Tell" was coined in the first place. So when you really need a reader to believe something right away, it's better to show it to them than to tell them about it. In other words, show the important stuff.

One area where showing rather than telling is especially important is in character development. If you say, "Jack was a cruel man who liked to torment small animals," it might make an impression on a reader. If you write a scene that shows Jack stringing rabbits up by their back legs and leaving them to hang in a cage full of ravenous ferrets, it makes an even bigger impression. No matter how many nice things Jack later does, the reader will not forget "seeing" the man torturing rabbits. Of course, there's no reason you can't both tell and show, but we'll get to that later.

Other aspects of writing can be treated the same way. Just remember that whenever something is important, you'll get the reader believing more quickly by showing it to them (and in some cases, showing it to them more than once).

How to Show Without Telling

Itís all very fine to know that you need to show rather than tell, but how do you go about it? In the example of Jack, the rabbits and the ravenous ferrets above, Jack's character was shown to the reader by writing a scene in which Jack does something cruel. To show—rather than tell—character, the scene is your most effective tool. Through scenes, we can "hear" the character speak and "see" them act.

Descriptive passages can also show things to the reader, but it is easy to fall into telling the reader in long descriptive prose.

But what about something like setting? How can you describe a place without telling? You can't, really, but you can use various tricks to make it seem like the reader is seeing for themself. Most effective in describing setting is to create a full sensory picture, complete with sound and smell and touch. Remember that you have five senses to draw on and use them all to put the reader into the setting. That way, they seem to experience the setting; you haven't told them about it, you've shown it to them. Be careful, though, not to overload the reader with too much detail. Be selective, and choose the detail that will most effectively create the mood or feeling you want to achieve.

When to Tell, Not Show

So now you know how and when "Show, Not Tell" is good advice. When is it not good advice, though? Imagine writing a novel in which every single aspect of character, every new setting, every action and every detail are fully and completely shown to the reader. How long would such a novel be? Not only would it be so long that very few readers would tackle it, but those who did try to read it would get bogged down and overwhelmed by all the stuff they were shown. Probably, they'd get bored and give up because there was too much development of trivial things.

Trivial things do not need to be shown. In fact, if they're truly trivial, they don't need to be in the story at all. But remember how I said that the important stuff should be shown, not told? Well, sometimes you have information that is important to the story—perhaps a small detail without which the plot cannot move forward, or a minor character trait that gives one of your fictional people more depth. This kind of information may not be central enough to the story to require the emphasis that showing gives it, but it still needs to be in there. What do you do? You tell it to the reader.

One place you'll find telling rather than showing useful is in scene transitions. When you want a reader to know that your characters have moved from one place to another, but the journey is not important, you can tell the reader about the move. "Sandra went down the hall into the kitchen" is perfectly adequate as a transition between a scene with Sandra and James fighting in their bedroom and a scene where Sandra gets a knife with which to kill her husband.

Unless there is something very important in the hallway that the reader needs to know, you don't have to linger there. Also, if you finish a scene with one set of characters and need to move to a scene in a different place with a different set of characters, you can simply tell the reader: "Andrew and Emily had made up but across the street Sandra and James were still screaming at each other across the expanse of their king-sized bed" quickly leaves one scene and moves to the next. It's all you need.

Show AND Tell

The moral of the story is this: show and tell. For the really important things, show the reader. For the less important but still necessary things, tell the reader. For the really, really important things, show the reader and tell the reader. Then maybe have one character tell another character where the reader can "overhear." Show the reader again if necessary. Next time someone says to you, "Show, don't tell," look at the specific part of your story (or poem) they are objecting to, and see if it's an instance where that advice is good or bad, or if it's somewhere you can both show and tell.


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