Monday, March 08, 2010

When to Show, When to Tell

“Show, don’t tell.”
This is one of the most common topics I see in the writing community. Mostly, it’s because this term was introduced without a definition to go along with it. So, after much research, practice, and hard work, I discovered the definition for myself.

Basically, the difference between showing and telling is this: Showing is action-oriented. Telling is not. When you show, you are showing the reader your characters in action. That's it.

This knowledge was extremely useful for me, and helped me to understand how to bring my characters out of my head and onto the paper, making them more realistic.

I’m starting to see other topics surface in writing communities. Like, whether or not it’s okay to sometimes tell instead of show. And, if so, how do you know whether you need to show or tell? That’s a tough question, and I didn’t know the answer. So I went searching, and this was the most common answer I found: Whether you show or tell depends on what your story requires.

Well... Technically, that’s true. But it’s also not very helpful. I thought there had to be a better definition, so I went searching. And this is what I eventually figured out.

If the character’s actions need to be interpreted in a specific way, then you need to show. If that interpretation isn’t important, then you can tell. Here’s why.

Telling is very ambiguous because the action is open to various interpretations. Showing leaves the action open to one interpretation, because you are giving the reader one specific action.
He left the room. (telling)
He stomped out the door, slamming it behind him. (showing)

If that specific action isn't important, then you should tell your reader instead of show. Take the first example. If the reader only needs to know that your character is leaving the room, then using a sentence that tells instead of shows is fine. If it is important for the reader to know how he leaves the room, requiring the reader's mind to go in a specific direction (like the anger in the second example), then you need to show.

All writing must contain a balance of showing and telling - so, yes, there are times when telling is necessary. And that's not a bad thing, as long as it's in balance with the rest of the story. Telling is often used as a transition, or a way to get your characters from place to place. It's the most useful and practical way to use telling.

Some places you should not use telling:
Telling is commonly used in a summary of events, because that’s the most natural way for it to come out. But that also means it can sound dry and boring. Summaries can still contain action-oriented statements, which will liven it up and turn it into showing.

Telling is also commonly used in description, because we want to tell the reader what things look like. But you don't have to use telling when describing things. Sentences with active verbs will convey a clear image, and keep the description from sounding like a laundry list.

Basically, if you’re unsure as to whether you need to show or tell in a specific area of your novel, ask yourself this:
Does the reader need to know how my character does something? If yes, then you need to show. Or does the reader need to know that he does something, but how he does it is irrelevant? If yes, then you need to tell.


Lauren Stewart said...

Nice way to explain the issue. I like that you went further than "don't do it". The use of telling for summary when the specifics don't matter makes a lot of sense.
I'm not sure whether that will help the concept seep into my head or not, but I'm crossing my fingers.

Marcia said...

Great points, Tabitha. I find that another good reason to tell is when one character needs to bring another up to speed on something readers already know.

Tabitha said...

Lauren - it's really hard to figure out how to balance showing and telling, and I wish someone had explained it to me when I was trying to figure it out. :)

Marcia - yes! A lot of people mistake dialog for showing, when it can sometimes be telling. And that's an excellent example!

Bish Denham said...

Very well put Tabitha! There is a time a place for everything.

Mary Witzl said...

I like the distinction you make too. Last year, I read a manuscript by someone who was making a real effort to show, not tell. Which would have been fine if she'd stuck to the times she really needed to do this, but she didn't and reading the ms was a long, tough slog. Sometimes leaving the room is just leaving the room, just like a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.

Now I'll have to go back and find the times that I'VE done that...

PJ Hoover said...

It took me the longest time to get this, Sherrie. But now I love seeing how I can creatively show instead of tell. It really is great advice to make authors work.

PJ Hoover said...

Okay, Tabitha, I seriously meant you and not Sherrie. Your guys blogs are so close together in my reader :)

* said...

Great points here. I think discovering definitions for ourselves, like you say, helps us internalize them.

Tabitha said...

Bish - thanks!! The hard part is trying to figure out what that time and place is. :)

Mary - I had to do that, because my default is to show all the time, but you're so right that it bogs down the story. I still tend to do it in my first drafts, so I have to clean it up in subsequent drafts. :)

Tabitha said...

PJ - LOL! :) I think it takes all writers a long time to understand this, because it only comes with practice and experience. Many writers give up before they get to this point.

Terresa - you are so right. I learn best while discovering. Even if someone has told me about something, I learn it much better if I go off and research/discover more about it.