Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Are you Showing or Telling?

Joni’s going to write on her blog.

Joni sits at her desk, pencils, paper, stapler and paper clips surrounding her. A deep sigh leaves her mouth as she sits contemplating, ready to tap on the keys preparing to write today’s blog.

Aha! I think I’ll write about SHOW vs. Tell! In the first sentence I told you what Joni was going to do. In the second sentence I SHOWED you.

Showing is more specific in terms as it lays out the picture for you. General terms are good when you need to tell when something is happening that is brief in the story. Whereas, showing moves the story along from point A to point B.

To tell a story, one only needs to say, Mary went to the store. To help in getting the picture across to your reader you need to learn how to SHOW them the story. Mary grabbed her purse hurried out the front door to walk down to the corner store. The screen door slammed as her mother called from behind, “Don’t forget the bread.”

Think of yourself reading a book. You don’t start at the end, you begin at the first page. You take it slowly and read one page at a time so you can grasp the entire picture.

Taken out of context, you can speed read a page here and there but do you fulfill your journey of enjoyment? Showing and telling can give you the same information. But with the showing the reader gets to savor each and every morsel.

Creating a mental picture for the reader is important if you care for them to read to the end. Children love fairy tales where they don’t need a lot of the baggage that comes with imagery, they get picture books. But novels or short stories need to tap into the mental cinema of the reader’s mind.

Telling is fine for trivial things like it was a stormy day. If the storm is essential to moving the story along or part of the immediate scene then showing should be done. Don’t over do it with the imagery so no one says you’re padding your work. Showing should come as a natural flow to you.

I was sad when my dog died.

This is me telling you how I felt.

I was miserable when my dog died. It hurt so much I could just spit. I never expected him to die and now he’s left me alone and lonely for companionship.

This is me padding the telling. You read that my dog died, I hurt, and I feel alone.

Today I was distracted when the puppies in the park were playing frisbee, it reminded me of my Skippy. My friend for life or so I thought, until he contracted a deadly virus that took him from me. No longer do I look at his bowls the same way as they still sit on the floor near the door.

This statement gives more specific details, without telling how I “felt”. You can read in my words that I miss him. You can read my hurt without using the word. You can read that I miss my dog and that I’m hurting just by getting the longing feeling from, “No longer do I look at his bowls.”

The point of "showing" is not to drown the reader in a sea of details. Instead, you should pick out only those details that matter.

Give your reader something to hold onto. Give him a tale of beauty. Save the telling for the hairdresser.


Anonymous said...

Great topic, Joni.

It's interesting how easy it is for writers to fall into this trap. Exposition comes so close to telling that I think many times new writers can't see the difference. I think clarification is required.

There are times when "telling" is justified. The trick is to know when and how to do it. I've been looking at the technique of exposition and noticing that if it is overplayed the end result is either an information dump or large, uninterrupted blocks of what I call "staging" exposition.

That is, the old "he did this and she did that and then they both went together and did this and afterward this happened..."
Not to be confused with background, this kind of "tell" falls into the category of the tell because it usually begins with an action and then is quickly followed by an explanation or a "tell" of what the character is feeling.

"He went to the door, peeked through the keyhole. He was terrified by what he saw."


"He went to answer the door, peeked through the keyhole. His heart slammed into his ribs and a low, animal whimper slipped through his lips."

Typical problem I see a lot. It's not a terminal situation, like having a dreadful plot or dull, uninspiring characters, but it needs to be address so that the writer can move on to better writing.


June said...

Hi Joni,

Ditto to what Raven said so well! :)

Take care,