Show vs. Tell No Holds Barred Grudge Match to The Death
by Peter Damien
So say that you’re a young, aspiring writer. The odds of this are pretty good, because in my unscientific poll – conducted by existing on the internet for quite a lot of years now and paying attention to the people around me – I’ve discovered that everyone who isn’t an aspiring pop star is an aspiring writer. Sometimes people want to be both.
Let’s say that you, the young writer, decides to not only do the writing, but to do some reading about writing itself. That’s fair enough. Writing advice seems like a useful thing to have, because it’s a big nebulous field and how the hell do you know if you’re writing anything worthwhile? And besides seeking reassurance, suggestions, guidelines and fun ideas, the simple fact is that writing can be kind of lonely, and it’s nice to read things which say “I get it, man, I’m there too. Or I was. Or I will be. Or I want to be, just as badly as you do.” So you go off to read about writing.
I don’t know how long it’ll take you to stumble across the debate about show versus tell, but I bet you it won’t take longer than a television commercial break.
Show versus Tell. This is apparently a crucial subject to consider in your writing, or so it would seem by the amount of ink and pixel spilled in talking about it.
(This is a bit deceptive, and I want to mention this here at the top of our discussion, so please bear with me a moment, dear Reader. The biggest and main reason that so much chatter goes on about writing advice is that writing advice is, all by itself, a big old industry. Like weight loss books and personality fixer-uppers, it’s a little niche which is rolling right along and the only way it can do that is to go round and round on topics like show versus tell and how much action in your first sentence and a million other little topics, and they’re endless debates because if we truly answered the questions, then the writing-advice-industry would putter out, and they don’t want that. So consider this, please, when reading writing advice. Even if it’s excellent writing advice. Be aware of why it’s being offered to you.)
So what is “show?” And what is “tell?”
“Tell” is the easiest to define, sort of. If you pick up a Dick & Jane book, one of those See-Spot-Run books (“oh oh! See mother! See big big mother! Mother has an axe! Run away Spot! Run away Dick! Oh oh!”) (sorry) you’ll be looking at a prime example of “tell.” There is nothing on the page except small declarative sentences. Jane sees Dick. Dick laughs. Mother laughs. A good time is had by all.
Tell is a simple sentence, such as “She was very angry.”
Well that certainly saves space, but it’s not going to bring the readers in (or is it?). All you’ve done is offer stage directions. She was very angry. He was sad. Exit stage right.
“Show,” then, is theoretically better. To “show” is to use the contents of the whole scene to indicate to your readers that “she was very angry.” Over the course of learning about the character, learning about the story, and learning about you, the writer, who inevitably peeks through fabric of the story, the reader should be able to discern through dialog and action, through interaction with other characters and through the course of the scene, that “she” is “very angry.”
that’s more wordy, isn’t it? Having to use the contents of the scene rather than a single sentence? Well, yes, but this is fiction, not the telegraph. I’m not saying you should explode onto the page in lush purple prose that drips from the edges of the page and means you have to wring out the pages when you’re done writing. I’m saying that you should indicate the emotion, not state it. The same for decisions, for your plot, and for more subtle things like finding out who’s the good guy, or the bad guy, who’s got the heart of gold and who’s a coward, and so forth. These things are revealed in the course of your story. If you just state them up front, you’ve done nothing.
Writing is all about resonance. You are trying to strike a pitch against the mind, heart, and soul of the reader, through the medium that is your novel. Resonate them correctly, and they’ll feel as angry as she does.
A fine example of “showing” would be William Shakespeare. Pick a play and get yourself into it. I’d go for Hamlet, myself, because it’s awfully complex the deeper into it you get (in fact, it’s complex on a quantum level. Honest). We are shown a range of characters and we are invited to view their interactions with each other, their environments, and their own minds and demons. We’re never, ever told “Hamlet is insane,” or “Hamlet is pretending to be insane” in the course of the story. That would ruin everything. That’d be horrible. But we’re shown his madness and left to decide for ourselves, based on its context and the story around it (and our own opinions) whether or not he’s mad or pretending.
So it seems like there’s no real versus here, it’s clearly “show” over “tell.” Tell is on the mat, the referee is counting to ten, and it’s all over.
except for Hemingway.
Consider “The Old Man and the Sea,” which if you haven’t read, you need to. What I’m talking about here is true for more or less any Hemingway piece, but since that one is my favorite, I’m going to stick with it. “The Old Man and the Sea” is a pretty miniscule novel. I usually read it in about two hours. Your mileage may vary. It is simple, bare-bones, and spare, using precisely the necessary words and not one more besides, which is the magic of Hemingway.
And it is absolutely nothing but “tell.”
It is a small book in which everything is clearly and succinctly told to us, neatly stated for our digestion, closer indeed to a telegraph in some ways than to a florid novel long on the description and dense passages.
But, and this is the trick, despite the fact that he tells us everything, he never tells us why.
Thus, we are told everything but must perceive the massive bulk of the iceberg which lies just beneath the surface all on our own, with no help from the author (or so it would seem, on a first read). “Telling” can be incredibly useful and complex. Perhaps you do tell me that “she was very angry,” but this simple statement is a clever piece of misdirection and I know without further words that actually, she’s not angry at all. She’s faking it. I’ve been reading this book for awhile, I know she’s blowing shit out of proportion on purpose…but why? I don’t know, I should read on.
“Tell,” then, can be the equivalent of the magician who shows you all four sides of the box he’s about to put his assistant into and then jam swords into. He’s shown you everything. But the unspoken agreement is that, despite seemingly showing you everything, he’s kept something back, and that will make all the difference.
So. “Show” versus “Tell” is a stalemate, in conclusion. Each of them, used in the correct situation, is a valuable and useful tool.
But how do I know which one to use, and when?
The answer is, simply, the one and only piece of writing advice you need which is:
Read a lot. And write a lot.
That’s it! And if everyone understood the depth of those two little “telling” sentences, honestly, there’d be no writing-advice industry out there. They contain everything you need, those two little lines.
Read a lot, and pay attention to what you’re reading. It’s amazing what the works that have come before you will give you. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a book where an author had pulled a trick, has done something clever – and more importantly, effective – and in my head I’ve said “huh, I didn’t know you could do that…” Suddenly, I have a new toy to play with, a new tool to try out. A new opinion on how to handle story, from an author who has been there. And if I’ve read the book and found it successful, then the bits I’ve gleaned from it are good and worth keeping. On the other hand, if the book is rubbish, perhaps I’ll find myself thinking “I can see why you did that….but it didn’t work…and I can see why it didn’t work too…”
These are useful things to be thinking. This is the construction of a mental toolbox in progress, and the more you read, the bigger and more diverse it’ll get. It’ll make you more discerning in the books you enjoy and dislike, likewise movies and TV shows, and it’ll give you the ability to solve an awful lot of problems in your own fiction, because you’ll have seen a million little things work, or fail, and know which ones you want to try.
And trying them out, that’s the “write a lot” part. It’s amazingly useful to do tons of writing, because the techniques you don’t enjoy using will start to fall out over time. Or at least I hope so, I dearly hope you look at your writing and say “I’m not in love with what I’m doing here” and cast it out without hesitation, or you’ve got bigger problems than this wee topic we’re discussing. Even more useful is a little later on when you begin publishing. There’s nothing like seeing your own problems laid bare in print to throw them into clarity for you. I can remember reading a story of mine in an anthology and getting to the end and going “that wasn’t satisfying. It was a great idea, but the turkey writing it didn’t go far enough with it. I see what was wrong, and how to fix it.” Sometimes, they’re huge embarassments. Sometimes, they’re little ones. Awkward word choices, weird repetitions…
….and places where you “told” when you should have “shown.”
So, after all this, my simple conclusion is this: read a lot, write a lot, and be very aware that the only loser in the “show versus tell” business is the word “versus,” wrongly stuck in between. They’re two tools pitted uselessly against each other. Call it “screwdriver versus hammer” and you can see precisely what I mean, don’t you? Of course you do.
So the next time someone has that debate cycling up for another run through, and you’re around, whack them upside the head and settle it once and for all. But don’t use a screwdriver, or a hammer, please. That was a metaphor. Honest.
Peter Damien is kept confined to a small apartment with two small hyperactive boys, a million books, quite a lot of animals, and a very patient and wonderful wife. He publishes short stories and articles in the hopes that someone will decode the secret messages inside and come rescue him and take him away on a pirate ship, but for some reason this hasn’t happened yet. He can be found on twitter as @peterdamien.