Hey there you literary lead slingers! I’ve seen more posts on showing versus telling on WordPress than there are tumbleweeds blowing across the dusty plains. That’s a good thing! I was going to list a bunch of references (as usual), but I found an exceptional WordPress heroine who has already done that!
I encourage you to swing over to The Sentranced Writer and check out this post. Allison (whose first name I’m using like we are best friends even though I just found her blog 10 minutes ago), took the time to compile ten brilliant resources for understanding showing versus telling. Awesome sauce!
I also wanted to offer my two cents on the concept and provide an interesting tool I’ve found regarding show versus tell (after all, I have to at least write SOMETHING for it to be a daily blog post).
Before I wrote this post I snagged some of my books to refresh the concept. Nearly every book I own on the craft of writing has a chapter dedicated to this idea. That tells us something about the importance of it right there.
Before we dive into the topic, check out the video below from one of my favorite movies, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly circa 1966. Seriously, if there is one soundtrack noise I’ve repeated more than any other in my life, it’s the one from this movie.
If I wasn’t so terrified of copyright infringement, I would have placed the fifty-five second clip here. It includes the “bad” guy’s monologue and Tuco’s classic retort…
“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” said Tuco. *Corey makes whistling noise*
Tuco is teaching us a valuable storytelling lesson and also about showing versus telling. Now that you have observed this clip with your eyeballs (assuming you watched the video), let’s consider something. What would be the best way to share the scene you just saw?
You could say, “Show someone the video clip.” I would agree with you. For most of us, sight is our primary sense. This movie clip shows us a scene because we are literally looking right at it with our peepers. We are experiencing it as the characters experience it. This is showing.
Now if you watched this scene and walked into a different room of your house and tried to explain what you saw, you are telling. You would likely say stuff like, “Imagine you are in an old western town. There is a guy walking into an old saloon and he doesn’t have a right arm…,” and on you would go. You are attempting to tell the story from an outside perspective.
When using the power of literary telepathy on your readers, you need to decide whether you want them to experience the scene as your characters do (show them), or if you want to pull back and explain the scene to them (tell them). It’s important to realize both of these are essential tools and both of them have a place.
Most sources will jump up and down and blather, “Showing is the bee’s knees!” I agree with this sentiment. It is indeed the bee’s knees. However, if all you do is “show” in your novel. It will be hundreds of thousands of words long. Compare the length of the following:
Telling: “The morning alarm began droning. Corey’s hand exploded from under the blankets and destroyed the threat with a quick thud.”
Showing: “His ears throbbed at the sudden explosion of noise. It sounded like the Imperial March from Star Wars. It was the Imperial March. Morning had come and brought cell phone alarms with it. The blankets cradled his body and the pillow had wrapped itself around his neck massaging him. The soft warmth of the bed begged him not to leave. But the Imperial March continued, only louder. The sharp coolness of the air assaulted his bare arm as it left the relative safety of the…” And on and on we go. If every single character action and interaction is revealed in this showing manner, you’re going to have one gargantuan book.
Here’s one solution I’ve found to help you navigate whether to show or tell from scene to scene. I pulled this specific idea from Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, but I’ve seen similar descriptions in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Stein on Writing. Bell offered a chart similar to the one below; mine is prettier.
While I don’t prescribe to a one-size-fits-all style of shaping scenes, this is useful idea to play with. If the scene is just starting and there is little intensity, it would fall into the “telling” area. Just go ahead and summarize it with a visceral line or two and get the scene moving. As the scene progresses and gains in intensity you should start moving towards “showing.” This reserves those longer bits of exposition for parts and pieces the reader will likely care about most (more intense action involving characters).
Of course now we fall into the, “QE how do I successfully rate intensity from 0-10?” problem area. I’m not sure. I thought about that when I was reading it in the different books. The answer is probably different for each author. We each likely have our own intensity scale we would apply.
Like I said, this may not be useful to everyone. As with most tools I acquire and share, I encourage you to use them or shelf them for later (just don’t throw them away).
That’s it for today! I know some of my readers also blog about writing. If you wrote a post on showing versus telling feel free to drop it in the comment box for others to navigate to. I’ll even make a reference section at the end of my article for people to stumble onto your work. Sharing is caring!
Thomas Weaver, over at North of Andover, wrote a solid post covering this topic. As always, his posts are highly entertaining and packed with great information. I highly recommend giving it a read. Click here and be teleported!
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As always, I’m curious about your own processes. How do you decide when to show and tell? Is it completely organic (it just kind of happens)? Or do you have a methodology you apply? What do you think of a scaling system like I recreated from Bell’s book? I’d love to hear about it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!