Show, don’t tell – is a lie!
Here lies the advantage of authors over screenwriters. Screenwriters are stuck in ‘show’, authors aren’t. Stories written entirely in ‘show’ are slow and boring. It’s your job to keep the reader entertained, this means rushing through the boring bits, conveying just enough information so the reader understands what comes next.
Understanding the sliding scale
Show, don’t tell is a phrase often told to beginning writers. It’s easily explained but a lot harder to master. Built-in past is called “exposition” and requires explanations so the reader can understand what is happening now. In its very nature, this is ‘telling‘ rather than showing. Handle with care. It is what happens when characters are rambling on in their own minds. They are giving the reader summaries. This will not provoke a strong emotional reaction. It reminds the reader that they are being told a story, rather than be sucked into the story. Telling is the language of the author.
Telling is short hand, to quickly get something on the page so you can move forward without cluttering the story, without slowing it down.
A scene of partial show, partial tell
It’s not always a matter of all or nothing. Often, a mixture of show and tell is used, resulting in a partial scene, a peek instead of a full show. The partial scene can be used to fill the reader in about events of lesser importance, lesser drama but still containing essential information without taking the big spotlight away from the corner stone scenes. In a partial scene, the setup is given in summary. Enough dialogue is mixed in, with specifics, to sketch a scene and give a glimpse of experience. Think of it like sketching the scene with broad strokes, just enough so your imagination can fill in the rest.
If you need to ‘tell’ or use a partial scene, use concrete vivid specific words to create the best experience possible for your reader.
Warning: do not apply this technique to avoid ‘telling’ when you write a boring piece of the story. If the piece isn’t exciting enough to show, go back and add excitement. Make it worth showing.
Showing, is the language of the character. It makes use of evocative description. This creates a mental picture for your reader. Use specific action-orientated examples to bring your message across. Use all the senses, describe what is there to be seen, felt, smelled and so forth. Seeing is perhaps the most vivid and detailed sense, but the fullness of a world comes from a combination of senses. Attempt to appeal to at least three senses at a time (e.g. visual, sound & smell). If done well, this allows the cinematic feeling one can get from reading a good book. It also forces your reader to become and stay involved in the story, as he deduces facts along the way rather than taking in information passively.
Show emotion by leaving out the labels and describing instead how the emotion affects the character and their actions. If you want to display a character as angry, don’t use the word anger. Don’t tell the person the label. Show him cursing. Describe his blood boiling. Show how he’s smashing his fist through the wall. Show his disjointed train of thought, unable to think straight.
Always show either in full or partial scene:
- The decision making process including the conclusion reached/ a change of heart occurs.
- The possibilities considered before the PoV character acts on a situation.
- The moment a vital piece of information is learned.
- When the PoV character is anticipating something that makes him feel strongly (this can be anything from horny excitement to dreadful anxiety)
- The specific memory triggered by an object/person/event.
- The PoV character’s reaction to events.
Knowing when to use which
Show the big, the exciting and the revealing events and the important decision making moments. Tell about the exposition and unexciting events that the reader has to know happened in order to make sense of what happens next. Use a partial scene for minor and exciting moments. When in doubt about the balance: showing a little is better than telling a lot.
Each affects the reader differently.
The visual cortex part of the brain is responsible for translating words on the paper into mental imagery. This cortex is activated when the reader is ‘shown’ a scene through the writer. The writer describes what the reader should see by using specific words describing telling details, providing sensory clues to bring the scene to life. This method makes the reader emotionally involved by speaking to the heart and guts. The writer whispers to the reader’s inner eye.
When the writer uses exposition, he speaks to the reader’s ear rather than the eye. Too much talking (telling) can lull the reader. Imagine attending a four hour lecture while void of emotion. This is why narrative, exposition passages should be kept to a minimum. The purpose of any scene is to provide the reader with an experience, not a lecture. Elaborate exposition is experienced like voice-overs in the movies. Interrupts the immersion of the dream.
How to avoid fucking up
Examples, show vs tell
Example of telling: Mary is very old.
Example of showing: She moved slow, her swollen-jointed hand shook as she reached for her cigarette holder. The liver spots on her hand were a daily confrontation with her age.
Example of telling : John is uneducated.
Example of showing: “I ain’t got time fo that.” said John.
Number 1 mistake: Telling disguised as showing
Example: “Jimmy saw a small red car parked across the street.”
This is telling, not showing. You are drawing attention to the act of seeing, by telling that Jimmy saw something, rather than simply showing the red car. Your point of view should already establish the fact that it is Jimmy who sees and hears the world. The reader should be securely seated within Jimmy’s brain before the red car comes into view.
Cleaver, J. (2002) Immediate Fiction.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.