Show & Tell

Show Tell

One of the ‘rules’ of writing is:

  • Show; don’t tell.

First, I’ll ‘tell’ you what this means:

  • Showing, rather than telling, can provide a more vivid understanding to the reader.

Now, let me ‘show’ you what this means:

  • “My daughter was upset because I refused to give her ice-cream,” tells you how my daughter reacted.
  • “When I refused her request for ice-cream, my daughter crossed her arms, spun around on one foot, and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her,” shows you how she reacted.

There may be times where it is more appropriate to tell rather than to show:

  • Showing a very minor point may detract from the storyline.
  • Showing may lose its effectiveness or seem tedious if done to an extreme.
  • Main points stand out better when just these are shown.
  • Telling can help make a quick transition between different scenes. For example, “They had an uneventful journey.”
  • A good balance between showing and telling may help achieve the proper rhythm and pace.
  • Telling is often more concise than showing. Imagine how long a typical novel may be if everything were shown rather than told. Readers want to feel like the story is making progress.
  • Telling may be more appropriate for technical writing than showing.

It may be better advice to say:

  • Balance your showing and telling.

But it isn’t the phrasing of the rule that matters. What matters is understanding the distinction between showing and telling, learning how to do each effectively, discovering when to do which, finding the right balance, and making the story and wording flow well.

I have a little riddle for you:

  • What do you get when a novelist takes showing to an extreme?

Spoiler alert: The answer is coming now. If you’re going to exclusively show, you might as well not write a book at all. You might as well film a movie.

Many people who love to read often remark that a book is better than the movie. (Partly, this is because a movie is over in two hours, but a novel involves several hours of reading.)

A movie inherently shows a great deal. So if showing is better than telling, shouldn’t a movie be better than a book? Maybe not:

  • Too much showing reduces the role of the audience’s imagination. A book is better at cultivating the reader’s imagination.
  • Too much showing limits the creative freedom of the audience. When fewer specifics are given, the audience has more freedom in visualizing people, places, and things to their liking. Once they are shown a detail that they don’t like, they feel stuck with it.

A good balance between showing and telling can help provide the best of both worlds.

An interesting point arises when you consider book covers. If the main characters appear on the covers, the reader is shown very specifically how those characters look:

  • Does this hamper the reader’s imagination and freedom in visualizing?

Maybe. But it may be a necessity in genres where this is common, like romance. A cover that clearly depicts the genre can be a valuable marketing tool. If readers are accustomed to seeing the characters on the cover in a given genre, a cover that doesn’t do this may suffer through many fewer sales.

At least, if the characters are depicted on the cover, those characters are apt to appeal to people who purchase the book. So while readers may not be able visualize the characters in their own fashion, they will probably be okay with it.

I also come across this issue of show and tell when teaching physics:

  • Very often, showing is a more effective teaching tool than telling.
  • However, many valuable thinking skills are developed through telling—for example, the ability to reason abstractly and to synthesize information.
  • Students prefer to be shown, but if they never experience processing information they are told, they won’t develop some of these other valuable skills.
  • Examples show students how to solve problems. Some students ignore theory, concepts, and proofs, focusing solely on the examples. When they do this, they miss out on important learning elements.
  • It’s better to be able to solve hundreds of different problems by understanding the underlying technique than it is to memorize hundreds of different solutions. For example, understanding how to apply conservation of energy can help a student solve hundreds of different physics problems. The student who must rely on a very specific example as a guide will struggle with many of the problems.
  • Some skills are difficult to show. Many laboratory, reasoning, and application skills must be learned by trying.

As with writing, a good balance between showing and telling may provide a better learning experience in some ways.

Similarly, there may be some benefits to reading writing that is more abstract, showing less, telling more, and requiring more thought from the reader.

It depends on what you’re writing and who your audience is. An enjoyable read for a popular audience should make things easier on the reader. There are audiences who like things more abstract, for which there should be less showing and more telling, with more opportunities to puzzle things out.

Effective writing meets the needs of the specific target audience.

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing), Facebook page, Twitter

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7 comments on “Show & Tell

  1. That’s an interesting bit about teaching physics. As a writer, I feel that I am teaching metaphysics to my readers–specifically the metaphysics of the world that I have created in my books.

    Ideally, once my readers are a few chapters into one of my books, they are familiar enough with the laws that govern my fictional reality that they understand what is happening and can predict what will happen next.

    For example, I spend quite a bit of time showing what an “ambimorph” is in my first novel, when I introduce ambimorph characters in my next ones I simply do a brief review, I feel comfortable telling, because I’ve already shown.

  2. Great post, but something came to mind when I read it. A lot of people have told me that my books read like movies because of the present tense. So, I wonder how much of an impact tense has. Since most books are past tense, nobody seems to notice a connection. Yet, in present tense, it comes off as more show than tell, which is the nature of the beast from what I can tell.

    • I hadn’t thought about tense in this context. I can see that. At a theatre, you feel like you’re in the moment, so present tense fiction could have a similar effect. (Depending on the audience, or aspirations for a movie deal, having people tell you that a book reads like a movie may be a good thing.) 🙂

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