Show what needs Shown, Tell what needs Told
By Shannon Leigh Rivera
“Specificity in writing should not depend on modifiers”
- Adam Sexton, Master Class in Fiction Writing
Show and Tell. As writers, we have heard these two words a lot. The more you study writing and the more you read on the subject of writing, the more you will hear on the subject of showing and telling. Specifically, you are certain to hear the catchphrase is “show, don’t tell”. I know I have said this to my students when teaching writing workshops. And I usually receive hearty nods of approval, yet rarely do I get students who ask me exactly what that means. More often than not, people who tout this fail to fully explain what ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ mean to writers (and I will admit that in my early teaching days, I also failed to explain this properly). What does it mean to ‘show’ the reader something versus ‘telling’ the reader something? Do you always have to show, not tell? Is it possible to tell and not show? When should you do what and how do you know what is right? Is it possible to over-show or over-tell? Today, I will be exploring Show and Tell and provide you with a short list of helpful hints to help you know when to use both and the benefits and drawbacks of associated with each.
So let’s get started!
“Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction”.* As we talked about last week, words that evoke sensory responses are concrete, or definite. The way in which one describes something helps connect readers to story elements. We call this ‘living’ writing. It jumps off the pages into our imaginations and forces us to hear, to feel, to see, to taste, and to smell the world the author imagined. Rather than tell the reader “the food was cold”, one could say “the porridge felt like ice as it slid down my throat”. A clear demonstration of using the senses to SHOW details rather than just tell the details. A writer must “deal in sense detail” and they must be “details that matter”*.
“A detail is concrete if it appeals to one of the fives sense; it is significant if it also conveys an idea or a judgment or both”. Abstract qualities- kindness, arrogance, selfishness, for example- should be shown via sensory words in order to elicit more emotional responses from readers.
Example- “John was handsome and he knew it. He was the most arrogant boy I ever knew.” (Telling)
Example-“John lived in front of his mirror. If you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him in the hallways between classes, you might catch him flipping his dark, curly hair over in a smooth gesture as he smiled at bands of roving cheerleaders. His white teeth would gleam as if they were under the flash of a storm of paparazzi and every girl swooned at the sight.” (Showing)
We don’t just hear that John is handsome, we can feel it in his actions and in the sensory descriptions that feed into our image of who this character is.
Action verbs are one of the best ways to SHOW rather than tell. When characters ‘act’ rather than ‘be’, a reader gets a sense of movement instead of just observing a stationary object.
Most people would say- ‘never tell someone something they can see for themselves’. Telling requires less page space than showing (as you can see in the above example.) And if we spent an entire novel showing every single detail, we would never finish a novel. In fact, showing is meant to create drama or dramatic tension, because it is full of imagery and very detailed sensory descriptions. But there is such a thing as overkill. Yes, you really can describe to death a room or a home or a person or things.
Adam Sexton suggests in Master Class in Writing Fiction that writers should “learn the names of things” so that they, the author, can earn their readers trust by being able to use the specific, more detailed names for nouns.** The reason for learning to use specific names is precision. When you write, pick the most important details to name (and not everything or else it will read like an Amazon warehouse inventory sheet). Include “telling details”, which “provide crucial information about a character or situation... with efficiency and grace”.** In other words, you need to learn precise nouns so that you can use them with precision to give flavor to your writing. But too much seasoning—too many precise words, too many detailed sensory words— and you will overpower the story and send your reader running for their word-meal elsewhere.
There are times when it is necessary for you to skip the show and just tell your audience something. Narrative gives readers information as do summaries of events. Sometimes you need to save your reader time by getting to the point in order to set the scene. Other times you will just need to explain a situation. This doesn’t mean that you have to use boring, flavorless words. You can be precise here too. Yet the idea is to move the reader quickly through this section and still give them something to take away.
You can open a story with telling rather than showing, especially if you use an omniscient narrator. Sometimes you will need to summarize events, small details like setting or time, in order to make room for the showing parts of your story. Remember that it is about precision. Telling can be used to present basic information that is essential to the plot, as long as it is done through a story. Don’t dump on the reader, spread out the telling narrative throughout the pages. Things like backstory, for example, if they must be told, can be done through telling. Again, doing so over pages and not in one giant lump will save you’re the embarrassment of having someone slam your book back on the shelf.
Example: “Life is unfair. Isn’t that a truth you have heard in your lifetime? I have lived a thousand years and still it is a truth that rings out from one century to the next. Nothing is fair on this cruel world.” (Telling)
If you stop the forward progression of your story to give the readers details, these are normally called ‘telling details’. These details are outside of the novels natural progression and they offer information to the reader, information that you believe the reader needs. This happens quite often in stories and most people are unaware that it is happening (if the writer is well practiced in both showing and telling.) Pay attention the next time you read and find a sentence that tells. Note whether you feel like the story would be better off without it or if the author did well to blend her/his showing and telling together.
The key between showing and telling is balance. You need to have both. You should neither show your reader everything nor tell them everything. It is your job to find what needs to be shown and show it and find what needs to be told and tell it. That is the writer’s job. 10 Ways to Practice Showing and Telling:
10 Ways to Practice Showing and Telling:
1.Avoid TELLING emotions. Practice SHOWING emotions. What would angry look like, for example? Practice describing anger without telling the audience
2.Visualize details via the sense and practice describing them
3.Learn the names of things- plants, trees, cars, types of houses, etc. and practice using them with precision in your writing
4.Show a characters inner self (thoughts and feelings) through dialogue and action.
5.Practice telling us how characters spoke with specific dialogue tags. Practice showing how they spoke with specific words.
6.Practice weaving in backstory into showing sentences.
7.Create a telling introduction with vivid imagery
8.Practice using stronger action verbs in both showing and telling sentences
9.Imagine a scene through the eyes of a cameraman
10.Reimagine a scene that is showing into telling and a telling scene into showing
Remember. There is nothing wrong with TELLING or SHOWING. A good writer will use both. I will leave you with a beautiful example of telling.
“He always went on like this, but he wasn’t, ever, really as bad as he sounded, not even on the weekends, when he got drunk. As a matter of fact, he was always on the lookout for “something a little better,” but he died before he found it. He died suddenly, during a drunken weekend in the middle of the war, when Sonny was fifteen. He and Sonny hadn’t ever got on too well. And this was partly because Sonny was the apple of his father’s eye. It was because he loved Sonny so much and was so frightened for him, that he was always fighting with him. It doesn’t do any good to fight with Sonny, Sonny just moves back, inside himself, where he can’t be reached. But the principal reason that they never hit it off is that they were so much alike. Daddy was big and tough and loud-talking, just the opposite of Sonny, but they both had—that same privacy.”***
-Excerpt from Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin
***Baldwin, James. "Stories." Seagull Reader: Stories. Ed. Joseph Kelly. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015. 29-61. Print
*Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 9th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.
**Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. Print.