Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Show Versus Tell

by Janis Patterson

One of the most contentious subjects in the writing/reading world is the evergreen argument of show versus tell. For the few non-combatants in this ongoing war, show is where the reader actually sees what happens as it does, instead of being told that it has happened. (By the way, this has nothing to do with past or present tense - it is a construction tool.) 

Both sides have their advocates and logical reasons for believing so. ‘Showing’ brings the reader into the action; ‘telling’ is off-putting and remote, say some. ‘Telling’ gets the action across; ‘showing’ is sometimes clumsy and crude, say their opponents.

I say both tools have their uses. Some things should be shown; some things should not, and I’m not talking just about intimate bodily functions.

When the heroine is creeping through a darkened cellar, unsure if the villain is in there with her, I think the reader should experience every nuance of fear (and hopefully relief when she is rescued by the hero); such emotional involvement is why we read books. This is show at its finest.

On the other hand, imagine a book where every move the hero performs from when he wakes up in the morning, walks into the bathroom, takes care of business then showers, dries off and shaves, finally brushing his teeth before going into the bedroom to dress, taking at least half a page to decide between the blue suit and the brown, the striped tie or the one with little horse figures and finally decides on the one with the gold medallions then takes the elevator down so he can get to his meeting with XYZ Corporation... I’m glad he’s awake, because after all that the readers probably won’t be!

How much simpler to say something like, “After following his normal morning routine Hero hurried to his appointment with XYZ Corporation, his confidence raised by the knowledge he looked very successful in his brown suit and new tie with the gold medallions.” (And even that’s a little wordy, but it beats two or three pages of mind-numbing minutiae!) Telling, not showing.

So, like all the ‘rules’ about writing, you really can’t pin down anything to an absolute always-every-time yes or no. Every writing device - show, tell, backstory, flashbacks, interior dialogue, dialogue tags and the hundreds of others we all know - are just tools, and like every other tool of every kind can fulfill their purpose if used properly.

That’s the telling phrase - if used properly. I am a believer in craft over story. It makes no difference if you have the best story in the world if you can’t convey it to your readers in an intelligent and useful form that tells your story the way it should be. Conversely, there are books where the story is desperately fragile and practically transparent, but the writing is so superb you find yourself reading on in spite of it. Craft over content. Ideally your story should have ample helpings of both, but if one has to be topmost, give me craft.


Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Good reminder that both showing and telling are useful tools. I know readers like lots of white space (dialogue) and short, tension-filled paragraphs that plunge you right in the scene, but soometimes I actually enjoy a little more description, a slower pace, etc. I'm reading a book now that has lots of narration in it, but it keeps luring me on rather than turning me off.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great post and so true!
Good luck and God's blessings

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I had a paragraph telling not showing near the beginning of book 2 in what was to be a 3-book series. The editor said, "I want a book from that paragraph." I gave it a second look and wrote the book. It ended up book two in my four book historical series THE WOMEN OF PARAGON SPRINGS. It is still selling, this time around in a four-book Omnibus.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Good explanation--it's writing what needs to be shown, and what needs to be told.

Morgan Mandel said...

I agree that both are useful. One without the other would either rush the story or make it go super slow.

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