Monday, March 24, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

Hello guys and gals! Welcome back from an excellent holiday weekend! I'm happy to be back and I've decided that today would be a great day to post about the ever present advice: show, don't tell.
There are certain phrases and tidbits of advice you'll come across in your quest to become a better writer. If you hear nothing else about character development, plot structure and twists, or even basic grammar, you'll undoubtedly hear the term 'show, don't tell'. But what does that mean, exactly? Could there be occasions when handing your readers the details is better than going through the painstaking process of showing them? At what juncture do we tell too much and show too little or tell too little and show too much?
Can I be honest with you? (Haha, of course!) This is one of those subjects that, I honestly feel, has become so cliché that it offers almost no help at all to beginning writers. There is so much to be said about this topic and yet it's often thrown out in passing, which annoys me to no end. It's almost the cop out of writing advice because generally the people who tell you this don't bother to elaborate.
Okay, someone just told you that you should show, not tell - and that's the key to successful writing. You quickly accost your children (or someone else's) and manage to wrest a coloring book and 3 and a half crayons from their sticky little fingers. You're finally ready to conduct your greatest symphony; the greatest symphony. You sing your little mantra to yourself, encouraging words that pronounce your dedication to showing and your seething hatred of all things telling. Like a boyscout you are prepared, like a mountain you are strong, you're a freakin' army of one.
You show that it's morning with the way the shadows hang delicately towards the west.
You show that the neighbor's cat has an attitude by the way it struts on top of the fence.
You show that the kitchen is dirty with nose-turning detail.
You show everything there is to see with excruciating accuracy.
And then if comes time to actually write the story but you're so tired from writing all that detail and you've only just begun, what a chore!

What they don't tell you is that 'show, don't tell' isn't the end all be all to your story. There are some things that can be best told by allowing the reader to figure out what's going on through actions or dialogue. There are other things that have so much more impact by putting it out there with as much blunt force as possible. Sometimes combining these approaches can be very effective.
Jonathon frowned. The girl came closer, her eyes were wide with delight.
"Oh Jonathon! You came."
It was too late now, he'd been spotted.
"Hi Cindy, just stopped by, I can't stay long," he said through a forced smile.
"Please come in, make yourself at home," she said.
One quick look about the room seemed to scream that he didn't belong. Everyone wore their expensive sweaters and ironed slacks. He suddenly felt very out of place in his worn flannel shirt and faded jeans. He was not happy to be here.
The thing is, don't get so caught up in showing and not telling that you miss out on writing what's really going on. Sometimes you'll want to be direct and to the point, other times you'll want to play with the scene a little, build tension or set up suspense. The real test is to write it out and then go back and read it aloud. Some of us can be real talkers (I'm raising my hand) , but even then it's easy to tell when you've lingered too long on a minor scene. Not everything has to be described in stunning detail. It's too much for readers to take in everything and distinguish what's important from what's just scenery. Think about individual pixels in a high resolution picture. If our eyes could appreciate every single dot of color we would miss out on the bigger picture that forms when they all meld into one another. Don't let your story become over pixelated, but remember, too much generalization and bluntness will cause the image to become too fuzzy for comfort. The trick is finding the balance in your story, each one will be different and will require a different tone. Sometimes we don't find the voice until we've worked through a few drafts. Be patient. Spend time reading aloud and you'll find what works for you.

Creative Writing Exercise:


Ken Armstrong said...

Great piece Brady-Dude!

With regard to the writing example therein, let me make one small point.

I would tend to say that the whole example is a good illustration of 'Show'... except for the last line.

The last line;

"He was not happy to be here."

... is 'Tell'. I think the example works better as a piece of writing without this last line.

Like I said, great piece!!

Brady Frost said...

Thanks Ken!
The example can work but it really depends on the flow of the rest of the story. In my mind I would probably see it as an emphasis point but moreover as a transition. We've established that he wasn't happy to be there with the way he reacted to Cindy, yes, but there is so much left to show in the next scene through small details and dialogue. In my writing style I would likely tend to be much more subtle in why he didn't want to be there, rest assured the clothing differences would be nothing more than an excuse, not the actual reason.
We can already tell from this small snippet that there is unknown conflict between Jonathon and Cindy, he knows, she doesn't. But we also know something else, he doesn't want to be there, doesn't want to be seen there. But he's still there, isn't he?
It's okay to tell your readers something for emphasis sometimes, especially when there is so much going on. I don't need to belabor the point that he's very unhappy to be there. I can show it and then tell it for extra emphasis, but for this to be effective it needs to have a reason behind it. The rest of the text would determine if it flowed properly. Obviously, you would want to avoid overuse.

Thanks for the comment, Ken-Buddy!

Tam said...

I think you make a good point about balance between show and tell.

Too much 'show' pisses me off.
Like with the example you gave of showing that it's morning with the way the shadows hang delicately towards the west.
Too cryptic for my little mind, unless the author also has the good manners to 'show' that it is morning by having a character urinate for a long time before putting on some eggs, I will likely miss the fact completely.

I need a little bit of tell.

Too much tell is awful though, a big reason why Film noir is not to my tastes.

Ken Armstrong said...

Gees Tam! I wish that character had washed their hands before putting on the eggs...

I suppose I tend to apply my 'Show not Tell' rules to matters of exposition much more than matters of prose detail.

I agree - I think it's fine to say 'it's the morning' rather than... whatever :)

Where I have to watch it, is when I get in to all the 'Noir'ish back-story shit when I should be integrating it into the action as much as possible.

Guess we all agree on the basic point.

Sorry... (ahem)

"Brady, Tam and Ken looked quietly at each other and nodded minutely. It was enough..."