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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Show vs. Tell

Whether you write suspense, romance, or science fiction, you must have a mastery of the basics of the craft of fiction. Most basic of all--and something I rarely find new novelists taking time to learn--is the art of showing in fiction.

What Is Show vs. Tell?

In fiction, telling is when you give information in a straight summarized fashion: "Jim was a lazy slob." Showing is when you illustrate that through scene, action, and dialogue:

"Louise, where's my beer? I'm thirsty, woman!"

"Get off that couch and get it yourself, why don't you?"

Jim scratched his belly and enjoyed how it jiggled like a water balloon. "Just get it, all right? Get and I'll...I'll get out there and mow the front lawn."

Louise poked her head around the door jamb. "You mean today?"

"Yes, today. What'd you think I meant?"

"And you'd do the back lawn, too?"

Jim pointed the remote and changed the channel. "Don't get greedy now."

Louise went back down the hall. "Get your own beer."


You see that it took a little longer to illustrate that Jim is a lazy slob than it did to simply feed it to the reader on a spoon, but look how much more interesting the showing version was. We might know intellectually from the telling version that Jim is slovenly and lazy, but from the showing version we feel it. We know it in a deep way. Jim is a slob and a jerk and a lazy moron and he treats his family like dirt.

With showing, what you lose in brevity you gain in impact.

Showing is when you reveal things about your characters, the story world, relationships, etc., as you go about advancing your story. With telling, you stop the story in its tracks, kill whatever momentum you had going, and back up like a dump truck to dump a ton of information onto your reader.

Your reader thinks, "I don't care about this stuff right now! Get on with the story."

Categories of Telling

There are three main areas in which novelists generally resort to telling: backstory, exposition, and character motivation. But they all have one thing in common: they stop the story cold.

Backstory is background information about your story, the environment, the setting, the characters, and the relationships. Here are some examples:

Kevin had grown up in affluence. His parents had always given him whatever he wanted. So he was spoiled, too. When he was ten his mother bought him a... [blah, blah, blah]


The planet had been colonized two hundred years ago as part of a... [blah, blah, blah]


Jerry used to be Susie's boyfriend, but that was before Susie caught Jerry kissing Delilah, who had been Tom's girl before the operation. [blah, blah, blah]

Do you see how the story has shifted into neutral (or park, or even reverse) while the author spoon-feeds the reader information about how things were before the story began? Nothing is actually happening. The story is stalled while we are forced to endure a lecture on the lore of yesteryear. Yawn.

It would be like someone delaying the beginning of a movie in order to stand in front of the audience and say, "Before you can watch this you need to understand the distribution channels we went through to bring this to you. And you probably need to understand how distribution works in other industries besides the film industry." The audience would revolt, shouting, "Shut up and get on with the story!"

Good advice.

Exposition is when the novelist explains everything.

The movers had used heavy duty packing tape because sometimes the lighter stuff gave way and someone's belongings would come crashing to the floor.


The events that took place over the next month were the strangest the town had ever known.

As Browne & King say in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "resist the urge to explain." R.U.E.

This kind of telling is like meta-information. Information about the story rather than something in the story itself.

Finally, telling happens in character motivations when the novelist brings the impulse to explain everything to his or her characters.

"Oh, my!" Twilene was impressed with what the general had said. "I'm so impressed with what you just said, General!"


"But everyone knows I'm not making this up, right?" Jerome said, looking for some support because he was feeling insecure.

In the words of Dilbert, "Gah!"

Death to Telling

Telling should die a horrible death.

The irony is that most of the time novelists later show what they've already told. They do both. Like Twilene and Jerome above. If you cut the telling, wouldn't their words have shown the very thing the novelist felt compelled to also tell?

I believe novelists resort to telling because they're concerned the reader won't get the point if they don't. That's why I used telling in my early (and unpublished) years of writing, and it's why other novelists tell me they've put that stuff in. "I was afraid the reader wouldn't understand that they'd once had a relationship if I didn't spell it out."

And so we go on being heavy-handed and treating our readers like dimwits.

Meanwhile, now that we think we've told them enough that they'll get it, we then proceed to show it, more confident that we'll be understood.

But the truth is that readers know how to interpret fiction. When you take out the telling, the showing remains. And that's all they need. You can remove just about every bit of telling in your book and you'll find that you've actually shown it adequately.

A reader who understands something because you pound it into her with telling is going to feel like her brain has been turned off or numbed. In contrast, a reader who "catches" something in the way two characters talk or who figures something out based on the awards on a character's wall will feel engaged and energized. Which do you want your reader feeling?

Don't Summarize, Dramatize!

Go back through your ms. looking for the telling. It will be hard to see at first, but you must work to develop the ability to spot it.

Now that you can see it, cut it all out.

Is your story hurt? Does the reader not know something that she must know to understand the story?

If so, if you've stumbled upon one of those rare occasions when something that you'd put into telling is actually necessary to the story, then you must figure out a way to bring that out through scene, action, and dialogue. In other words, make it part of the story.

Here's the rule: include the bare minimum that your reader needs to know to understand what's going on.

But hold on: that doesn't mean you can give three pages (or even three sentences) of telling so long as it's stuff the reader needs to know. No, it just means that you need to find ways to dramatize those few bits that really are important.

You may feel like you're speaking with a more limited vocabulary or painting with a broader brush when you restrict yourself to only what the reader can catch by watching your story play out. After all, you'd become accustomed to telling every last detail you could think of, but now you have to act everything out?

If you're feeling restricted, good! That's what discipline feels like. It means you're going to have to decide what things are really important and illustrate only those things. Back when you could throw in everything and the kitchen sink, you could be lazy and self-indulgent. Now you have to make hard choices.

Because it is harder to figure out how to convey something through scene, action, and dialogue alone than it is to just tell the reader exactly what you mean. Just for the sake of time and your sanity you'll find yourself tossing out the nonessentials and retaining only what needs to be there.


Odds and Ends

Novelists sometimes worry that their wordcount will go down too far if they cut out those pages and pages of momentum-killing telling.

Or they may worry that their wordcount will go up too high if they write out into full scenes all the information they'd originally given on a platter.

The truth is that the two will cancel each other out. It's easier to tell and tell and tell, but you give too much information and you stop the story. It's harder and takes more words to show instead, but you keep the story going and you cause your reader to become engaged in your book.

Are there exceptions? Is there ever a time when summary is okay or even preferred? Absolutely. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers covers this well, too.

In short, you can (rarely) summarize something if it's A) something the reader needs to know to understand the story and B) it's not important enough to play out in a full scene.

For instance, let's say your protagonist gets separated from his minor character friends for a couple of chapters. Then suddenly they reappear onstage and they're reunited. Now, we probably need to know what they were doing while they were separated, but we don't need to see it all played out in full scenes. That's a good place for summary.

But even there it's best if you can do it within the context of a story-advancing scene. Maybe the protagonist asks where they'd been and they can respond. Instead of summarizing it yourself, you let your characters summarize it. This keeps it as part of the scene and also gives you an opportunity to further characterize these minor characters.

Such occasions are rare, though. I'd say that 97% or more of your ms. should consist of showing.

Think of yourself as a filmmaker. You are allowed to include only that which the camera can see and the microphone can hear.

When you think about it that way, suddenly all those pages of nothing but narration in which you're explaining the world and its history become obviously out of place. How could you do that with only a camera and microphone? You couldn't. So cut it.

You can't push the analogy too far, of course, because fiction allows us to see through the eyes and hear the thoughts of our viewpoint characters, which film usually can't do. But it is still a useful rule of thumb.

Okay, time for you to go hunting for the telling in your manuscript. As you go, watch out for the little sneaky ones, too, like, "I did," said the plumber who had once been a sailor in the navy, "I surely did."

When you find the telling, delete it. That will probably be all you need to do, as you've likely shown the same information already. If you find you need some bit of what you've cut, figure out a way to dramatize it in a scene.

To get you started, rent Hitchcock's Rear Window and watch the opening camera move that pans across the inside of our protagonist's apartment. Before a single word is uttered, you know a ton about this guy. That, my friend, is showing. Go thou and do likewise.

For More

You can read more fiction writing tips like this at my main teaching site, WhereTheMapEnds.com. Come on over and visit!

Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott


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