Monday, October 31, 2011

Show & Tell

They don't have to tell the audience there's a problem

“Show, don’t tell.” Writers hear this advice so often, it must become permanently tattooed on our brains. But what does it actually mean? When we tell a story, we are telling it. We’re using words, after all. So how can a writer show a story?

The trick I use is to envision my scene on a stage. I become a playwright. This prevents me from engaging in two bad writing habits: long-winded explanations, and endless interior monologue. The former is something we tend to do at the beginning of a story; we want to establish context, so we info-dump. But you can’t info-dump on a stage, unless you have a Greek chorus up there explaining everything (frowned upon these days). You have to present your story with action: characters must move, speak, do

Staging the scene takes care of another common narrative problem: the tendency to hang out in the POV character’s head, thinking, feeling, remembering, plotting. We have to do this sometimes, and the ability to do it is one serious advantage literature has over stage. But a little goes a long way: you don’t want to bore your audience. Forward momentum in a story comes almost entirely from action. Emotion needs to be dramatized as well: an actor on a stage can’t look at the audience and announce, “So, like, I’m angry in this scene, OK?” He has to show his anger with action; with his body, with his words. Put your guy on a stage: imagine how you, as stage director, would have him communicate his feelings. 
Your scene: here

Showing takes extra effort, so it’s no wonder we prize it so, especially when it’s well done. Showing draws the reader into the story on an emotional level, by encouraging her to experience it. 

There's a flip side to this excellent advice, however. As a young writer, I heard “show-don’t-tell” so many times I started to get carried away. By the time I’d demonstrated how very worried my poor protagonist was (studiously avoiding the word “worried” meanwhile, because that’s telling), I’d written two paragraphs instead of one word. My writing was becoming bogged down with all the showing. Showing is dramatic, but it can also be inefficient. Some things simply need to be established quickly, so we can move the story along.

I still struggle with this line. In fact, it’s probably my biggest writing struggle after "sit butt down at computer and start typing." What bits of my story need straightforward narration, and what bits need to be dramatized? There are so many choices to make. What about you? Have you ever been told you need to show more and tell less? How have you applied the advice — and has it changed your writing?

That's one way to intrigue your audience


  1. i'm just blog walking, and stop your beautifull blog. Also give you some comment here.

    Nb: Oh ya, dont forget to visit my blog too. And give us your opinion about my blog.

    Thanks for share.

  2. Great topic, Sister Steph!

    I think this is one of those rules we can't take too literally. Sure, a "shown" scene is usually more effective than a "told" one because the reader witnesses first-hand what is being said and how the characters react, but we can't only show because then our novels would turn into plays or movie scripts. The secret, I think, is to find the right balance for your novel.

    There are very effective ways to tell. Look at how some literary writers describe their characters or settings or create parallels in beautiful ways that help the reader visualize without having to witness the scene. (The problem is some writers do this too much. I've noticed it in most Latin American authors.) But in general, I think there should be more show than tell. A good guideline is to play out the scenes of more dramatic importance and emotional impact and use "telling" to connect them or fill in for the reader whenever backstory seems necessary to understand current events or a character's motivation.

  3. Hi Stephanie.
    Yep, I've been told this by critique partners and it's one of those things you do need someone else to point out. After scratching around a bit I do re-writes and yes, it is much better. I've learnt to write 'said' instead of lots of other words which end up being too 'telly'.


  4. Show don't tell is always tricky, but I think it's a mandatory element for anyone who wants to write fiction. I read a book a couple of months ago, one that was mainly literary, and it rarely "showed" the emotions of the characters in any format. The author could've at least thrown in a "telling" bone. The characters just felt wooden and a bit robotic. If nothing else, start out telling in your first draft and then go back through with revisions and add the showing where it feels it really needs to be.

  5. Excellent post, and really got me thinking. I am so behind on reading, and writing...this inspired me. I hope I can go forward! :)

  6. Lorena: Good guidelines! We're told so often how evil backstory is that I have a hard time allowing myself to "tell" it sometimes, even when it's necessary.

    Mary Mary: I really like what you said about telling in your first draft -- showing can be a lot of work, and might slow down the momentum you need to get the first draft done, so that is some wisdom there.

    L'Aussie: I have to go back and fix my dialogue tags frequently. "Said" is almost always the best tag, but for so long we are encouraged to use tags like "she whined" or "he snorted." That's a pitfall of mine. (Especially "snorted," for some reason.) Those have their place, but too many of them in a row is so distracting, isn't it? I don't see it until I reread, or a critique partner points it out.

    Maggie, I'm so glad my post was inspirational!

  7. Sorry I am late. Great post Sister Steph
    I hear Sister Mary, Mary. Some authors take too literally the “show don´t tell” injunction, their characters are absolutely anonymous. We can’t relate to them. And some authors “tell” wrong, and the reader gets all type of confusing messages.

    I have been told I don´t "show” enough. And yes, I have tried to correct that mistake, just to be told “I don´t tell enough” so I try to keep a balance by relying on dialogue.

  8. There is a fuzzy line between showing and telling. Is one visual and the other verbal? I have read excerpts from a few famous authors, just to see where they are telling and showing.
    An example; Somerset Maugham is basically a teller of tales. A common technique in his stories is to 'tell" in long, descriptive paragraphs, interspersed with one or two lines of conversation. Is dialog the 'showing' part? Many of his stories are first person narratives, where a lot of telling seems natural. Stories in the omniscient point of view distract me when the author endlessly tells what is going on in the heads of his characters. I keep thinking, 'how does he know that? I guess it's my idiosyncrasy. Top writers get away with it.
    I'd like to know where these handed-down mantras, like don't tell, or 'avoid adverbs', originated. Poe? James?
    Thanks Stephanie, for a thought provoking post. Regis

  9. No Regis, it´s more elaborated than that. Is not saying “John was furious” but having John banging on a table to “show” his anger. Yet, John could be killing a roach, right? It´s why excessive showing can be misleading.

  10. I do like the idea of visualising the scenes like a stage play. My first drafts are usually full of tells, but during revision I try to go through and fix it all up. SOmetimes I miss bits though. Yay for critique partners.

  11. I agree - that show & tell thing may be a breeze for grade-schoolers, but when it comes to writing, it's terribly tricky.
    Your advice to envision a scene on a stage is wonderful...

  12. I was actually just thinking about this very same thing today when I was critiquing someone's work. The "show don't tell" voice came into my head, but I realized that in some cases I actually like being told.

  13. Regis, I've noticed that older novels tend to have omniscient narrators and tons of head-hopping: I guess that particular rule must be fairly recent. I'm reading a Georgette Heyer right now (kind of dragging myself through it for historical reference, it's not fabulous) and we're in a different POV every paragraph; sometimes we switch POVs mid-sentence! Like a lot of rules, "don't head-hop" arrived for good reason. It's harder to become emotionally engaged in a story when you're wandering through all the character's heads. But somewhere along the line rules-of-thumb seem to become etched into stone tablets, don't they? Probably our human tendency to want everything black-and-white: here's the rule! No adverbs! EVER!

    "I'd like to know where these handed-down mantras, like don't tell, or 'avoid adverbs', originated. Poe? James?"

    Probably from how-to-write-a-novel books. :) I read a Poe story to my kids recently and found it very "tell"-y. And Henry James? Gah. I got about a hundred pages into "The Turn of the Screw" earlier this year and flung it aside. I think he used up the entire western world's allotment of commas. I love Somerset Maugham though!

  14. Kim and Lynda: I'm happy to hear my "stage it" trick is helpful. Best thing about writing forums is sharing what works for us, right?

    Missed Periods: "The 'show don't tell' voice came into my head, but I realized that in some cases I actually like being told." Me too!

    Violante: I agree, dialogue bridges the show-tell gap nicely. I just finished "Of Mice and Men," which is one of the most dialogue-intensive books I've read this year. Probably the fastest read I've ever come across from that era, and I think dialogue is the reason why. (Well, it's also really short.) Steinbeck originally conceived of the story as a play, and it reads like it. For the time it was written, it has very little telling.

  15. Regis, I don't know who came up with all of these rules. My guess is that it's a combination of people: Writers who were asked "how did you do this?", editors who've analyzed the elements that make for a faster read, someone who observed a change in readers, who knows.

    Steph, I agree that the "show vs. tell" rule is probably newer. My guess (with the playing-out-scenes approach) is that this concept evolved from the popularity of film and television--not necessarily plays since they have visual "limitations" that film doesn't. For example, a film can rely on visual elements to make a point since the camera can zoom on a subject or go into different spaces. But plays cannot. (In novels we also have this freedom.) My point is that people (particularly in the US) are getting used to being told stories this way and with all the entertainment choices, they don't dedicate as much time to reading anymore (unless they're legitimately interested in literature or have to read a classic book for school.)

    I'm currently reading a text-heavy book (Isabel Allende's "Daughter of Fortune") and I constantly have to push myself to read it because I want to know how she resolves it. I have to say that at the beginning, I didn't mind the heavy narration and backstory, but I've reached a point where I don't want any more backstory/description: I want action and dialogue!

  16. Suze's great post pointed me to your blog and I'm glad it did.

    I'm still struggling with 'show, don't tell', because a story needs both and the balance depends on a million variables, some our brain can process and others that are so complex only our gut and our heart can deal with them.

    A trick I sometimes use when I need to describe a setting is what I call the 'tour guide': when a guide shows you through a museum and points out every little detail, you (or your mind) start to wander away. So I imagine myself being a good tour guide, one who only points out the 2 or 3 things in a setting that really matter to the group she is with.

  17. K.C. great to see you here!

    I love your tour guide analogy! I've never thought of it this way, but it makes total sense. I think I'm going to implement that trick.

    Thanks for stopping by and come back!


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.