Show don’t Tell – Post 3 of 4

showdontellHi there again. This is the third post in a four part series. If you’re looking for any of the other posts, they can be found below.

Post 1: What is “Show don’t Tell”
Post 2: How do we know if we are using “Show don’t Tell”
Post 3: When is it ok to “Tell” instead of “Show”
Post 4: Showing inner thoughts and other “Show don’t Tell” myths.
Extra : More articles on “Show don’t Tell”

As we learned in the first post, we usually want to incorporate “showing” in our writing. However, we shouldn’t always use showing.

wait-whatYeah, it’s true. As coveted as “showing” is, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice. In fact, if we used it all the time, our books would be thousands of pages long. Showing involves using specific details and images to show the reader the scene. Those details and images require words…sometimes lots of words.

So in the interest of good pacing, there are many times you are better off just “telling” the reader and then moving on. A good example is character movements.

Let’s say our MC is done eating dinner and is taking his dishes back to the kitchen.

Scene with showing:
Gary balled the napkin up and tossed it on the hand-painted china plate sitting in front of him. The napkin partially covered the blue lotus blossom design inlaid around the outer edges of the dish. He stood up, collecting the plate as the silverware clinked together like wind chimes in a spring wind. With strides made heavy from a hard day’s work, he plodded around the dark lacquered dining table, pausing in front of the tall grandfather clock that stood against the wall. The clock was old, showing nicks and marks from the long trip it had made westward in the back of an Okie-style wagon. The clock hands stood motionless and the gold face was covered by a thin layer of dust. How long had it been since the weathered timekeeper worked? Gary grunted and then made his way into the kitchen.

Scene with telling:
Gary stood up, collecting his plate as he made his way into the kitchen.

Now to be sure, the showing scene paints a more vivid picture, but it takes an awful long time for us to get the poor man into the kitchen. There are so many specific details here that it is just killing the pacing. Especially if our dear reader has to hang out with us as we walk Gary across the kitchen to the garbage bin, and then to the sink and then finally out the back door to get to the scene where he fights off the cattle rustlers. That could take like 700 pages at the rate we’re going.

As readers, we don’t want to spend all day walking around with Gary. We want to get to the scene where he is facing down the cattle rustlers. So don’t try to use “showing” for everything, because you may do more harm than good.

That of course brings up the question: So when should I use showing, and when shouldn’t I?

guide-linesI have my own general guidelines, but keep in mind they are just my personal preferences. In your own writing, you should use “showing” where you think it makes the most sense.

My guidelines for when to use “showing” (in order of importance).

  1. Emotional states (Sadness, fear, anger, love, hatred, etc..) For me, this is the most impactful place you can use showing. If you want the reader to feel hatred or love, then your best bet is to use showing. Create a scene with specifics that allows the reader to empathize with the character’s situation and then the reader will feel the emotion. Show the reader the gentle hand of the mother that caresses her newborn child and you create a scene that evokes that love.
  2. Secondary feelings (nervous, anxious, jealousy, etc…). Again, this is a very impactful place to use showing. You can’t tell a reader to feel anxious, but you can show them a character that is biting their nails and checking their watch every 10 seconds. Couple that with an inner thought about how long it takes the weaponized virus to become airborne and you suddenly have an anxious reader too.
  3. Personality traits (greedy, generous, arrogant, etc..). Our characters have personalities and we can either just tell the reader the person is a greedy jerk, or we can show them a character who drives an Italian sports car, but refuses to donate to the orphanage because it’s not his problem those kids were too lazy to find parents.
  4. Scene descriptions (The weather, landscapes, buildings, etc..). I don’t worry too much about showing in this case. I set the scene fairly quickly and then move on to the story itself. So I might give the reader a quick description of the castle, but I’m not going to show the bright flags furling in the air and the smell of horses, men and weapons being readied for the rages of war. Now to be fair, I’ve seen some writers that are just flat out gifted with writing description. They paint such vivid pictures of the scenes that it become part of the joy of reading. If that’s you, then keep at it.
  5. Character movements (going to the kitchen, traveling in a train, going from one part of Narnia to the next). For me, this is the least impactful place to use showing. Characters move from one place to another, so we can get them from one scene to another. Have you ever heard that old saying: The journey is more important than the destination? Well in my opinion when it comes to writing, that’s just not true. Readers want to see the scenes, not the time it takes getting from one scene to the next. Keep in mind though, a train ride can be a scene – if that’s the place where the MC learns her best friend is planning to sell national security secrets to the bad guys. If it’s just a train ride though where the MC sits around staring out the window, then it isn’t worth spending three pages describing the landscape that rolls by. So just go straight to “telling” and say the MC took the 9:00am train to Chicago. Then once the MC is in Chicago, she meets her husband who was supposed to be dead…ok, now we have an opportunity to break out our “showing” skills and hit the readers with a heavy dose of emotion.

There’s also a train of thought that says “telling” is perfectly fine in writing. I’m not here to deny that. For some story forms “telling” works quite effectively. For example a lot of science fiction short stories incorporate heavy doses of “telling”. And it’s very effective – in case you don’t know, I’m a big sci-fi fan and I read a lot of sci-fi shorts. But even in the sci-fi medium (where “telling” is almost a necessity at times due to the heavy world building that needs to be done in a short time) authors will often shift gears to “showing” when they want to evoke an emotional response from the readers.

Middle Grade fiction is another great example. Now, please be cautioned – I’m not saying MG is somehow unsophisticated, so you can get away with just using “telling”. In fact in many ways I would argue it’s the opposite. MG readers are a lot more discerning than we give them credit for and as writers we have to be aware of that. “Showing” is a powerful technique for MG books, however, there is also a compelling argument for “telling.” MG readers tend to want to get to the good stuff a little quicker, so the pacing has to be crisp. Sometimes the best way to put a little more jump in our step is to use “telling” more than we might normally.

So “showing” and “telling” are both tools that every writer should have in their tool box. There’s a time to use each. Of course the real trick is figuring out when!

There’s one more category of telling that I’m going to tackle in a separate post and that deals with the inner thoughts of our characters. A fair argument could be made that inner thoughts are a form of “telling.” After all, we are telling the reader what the character is thinking. However, if inner thoughts are done correctly, they can be a powerful form of “showing.” More on that in the last post in this series:

Inner thoughts and other “show don’t tell” myths.

All the best,
JD Burns


2 thoughts on “Show don’t Tell – Post 3 of 4

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