Show, don’t tell (and pace)

What is Showing

Showing allows for immersion of the reader into the fictional dream. Showing is experiences with an illusion of real-time passing of time. They live in the moment, with the character. Use evocative description and make use of sensory words. When you show, you don’t tell the reader that it’s raining, you let them feel what it’s like to be rained upon.

How Showing affects the Reader

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.

Which bits to show

  • Turning point moments
  • suspense moments (reports aren’t scary)
  • moments when vital information is gained
  • Resolution scenes (required for satisfaction for the reader)
  • emotion (don’t tell me she’s sad, show me her tears)
  • anything that makes the character feel something intensely
  • the specific memory triggered by a reminder, especially when mourning a loss. Raise the dead for a moment so the reader can meet them.
  • character judgments (without referring to the character) e.g.: His rat face crumbled in confusion.

Show don’t tell – the passing of story-time

Avoid stating the passing of time, instead, show what has changed.

Hours: sun position, shadow length, sun light quality, artificial light use, closed or open curtains, temperature change

Days: weather change, progress in work, plants

Months: change in temperature, change in weather, seasonal changes, business went bankrupt, home is now abandoned

Years: use of buildings has changed, urban development, seedlings are now trees.

Show, don’t tell – Emotions

He pulled the knife out. My heart is pounding in my throat. My hands are shaking.

Boring. Right? That’s because this is the primal emotional response, but does not individualize the emotion of the character. The mind shapes the emotion. Present the thought before the physical response. Remember:

stimulus -> internalization -> response

Oh god. I’m going to die. My heart is pounding in my throat. My hands start to shake.

When to Tell emotions, instead of Show

When the intensity of the emotion is low but the audience needs to be aware of it, tell it. When the intensity is high, show it.

Low intensity, Tell:
John nervously stepped out into the street.
High intensity: Show:
John stepped out into the street. His keys slipped from his shaking fingers before he managed to lock the door behind him.

What is Telling

Built-in past is called “exposition” and requires explanations so the reader can understand what is happening now. Telling is the language of the author, it does not provoke an emotional reaction. Telling is short hand, to quickly get something on the page so you can move forward without cluttering the story, without slowing it down.

How Telling Affects the Reader

When the writer uses exposition, he speaks to the reader’s ear rather than the eye. Too much talking (telling) can lull the reader into boredom. Elaborate exposition is experienced like voice-overs in the movies. It interrupts the immersion of the dream.

How to balance Show and Tell by mixing them

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.

When in doubt about the balance: showing a little is better than telling a lot.

How Show and Tell affect the Pace

Exposition (telling) briefly summarizes the important events, though slows reading speed.

Mary is very old.

Full scenes (showing) aim to feel as if events unfold in real time, while reading speed increases.

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.

Most common 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.