One of the difficulties of following the ALMOST GOLDEN RULE of writing, “show, don’t tell,” is knowing exactly what that means and what that looks like on the page. That’s one of the reasons I’ve had such a complicated relationship with this particular piece of writing advice, and why I decided to do some of my own research on it and share it with you guys.
A crazy number of resources exist, as I found out, to help writers figure it all out. Some I found particularly helpful were Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting it), Writing Irresistible KidLit, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, and this article by Grammar Girl.
The easiest way I can break it down for you guys (and for myself!) is this:
Telling paints a picture. It states details flatly.
Showing dramatizes. It turns a flat tableau into a moving picture, a painting into a film.
With that essential difference in mind, here are the three examples of excellent telling I provided in part I of this series alongside examples of showing from the same texts. By looking at examples of each, from the same books, side by side, you’ll learn not only how the two types of writing differ, but more importantly, how to use both showing and telling as awesome symbiotic writing strategies in your own writing projects!
John Connolly, The Book of Lost Things
John Connolly is really great at telling. The quotation in the “tell” column is an excellent example of using telling to move the reader through time quickly. Connolly here is speeding up his protagonist’s journey into adulthood and old age, and so tells us what happens to get us from point A to point B.
|…he would talk to them of stories and books and explain to them how stories wanted to be told and books wanted to be read, and how everything that they ever needed to know about life and the land of which he wrote, or about any land or realm that they could imagine, was contained in books.
And some of the children understood, and some did not.
| Georgie, seated in his high chair, started to cry.
“Now look what you’ve done,” said Rose. She threw her napkin down on the table and went to Georgie.
David’s father buried his heading his hands.
“So it’s all my fault,” he said.
“Well, it’s not mine,” replied Rose.
Simultaneously, their eyes turned toward David.
“What?” he said. “You’re blaming me. Fine!”
He stomped away from the table, leaving his dinner unfinished.
But, as evidenced by the example in the “show” column, Connolly is also an expert at knowing when to show. Connolly could certainly tell the quoted information. He could write something like, “David felt out of place and unwanted in his new family.” After all, one of the things that you can tell effectively is emotion, right?
Well, yes, but David’s conflict in this scene is with his new step mother, half brother, and father, and this conflict is crucial to the novel’s conflict. It’s what makes David act and think the way he does throughout the story. It’s crucial, therefore, not to just be told that David feels out of place, but to see that displacement actually happening. So, Connolly shows us David’s emotions through action, dramatizing them through dialogue and movement.
Katherine Catmull, Summer and Bird
Catmull’s novel is full of beautiful telling. And the example in the “tell” column is a great one. It gives us a peek of the protagonist’s internal emotional state. We’re told what and how she feels, but part of the issue here is that Summer is not herself aware of those feelings. So a narrator NEEDS to tell us or we’re just as clueless as Summer. Telling works here to let the reader in on something the protagonist isn’t even aware of.
|But Bird was not only following the patchwork song, which she believed was meant for her; she was not only running from Summer; she was also running form her own guilty, hurting heart. So there was nowhere to go back to. Nowhere to go, nowhere to return.
| The third surprise was that when the raven spoke, a violet popped up in the green beside her. It was a surprise, and not a surprise–the violet seemed like just the same thing as the word. It was just a. different way of hearing the word.
“It’s you,” Summer said to the raven. She didn’t notice, but behind her a pale blue morning glory sprang up and began to wind across the road toward the violet. “I know you.”
“I like your song,” replied the raven. Four tall red poppies rose up behind her, swaying. “I like the music of it.”
It was actually difficult to find examples of showing in Summer and Bird. It is a rare example of a beautifully and evocatively TOLD story. But even here, we see showing playing a major role.
If Catmull were to tell what’s happening in the example in the “show” column, she might say something like, “As Summer and the Raven spoke the world changed around them.” Instead, she brings this scene to life by using dialogue and description of HOW that world comes to life.
Why is it a better strategy than telling here? Because style and structure need to fit content. If you’re depicting an active scene, you need to use an active style. If people and things are moving, transforming, etc, then your scene should be moving, too. And showing is much more active than telling.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone
You might not expect one of the most read, best selling novels ever to begin with telling, but it does. The first sentence of Harry Potter tells us instead of showing us. Even though Rowling begins with telling, however, she backs up her telling with showing. The example in the tell column is followed by lots of showing that emphasizes what she tells us about the Dursleys in those first sentences. Take a look at the examples in the show column:
| Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.
|Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out his most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his high chair.
None of them noticed a large, tawny owl flutter past the window.
As he drove toward town he thought of nothing except a large order of drills he was hoping to get that day.
Just when her first sentence has us convinced that Rowling’s a “teller” and not a “shower,” she jumps into a whole lot of action. Over and over again in the first chapter, Rowling shows us just how happily normal and average the Dursleys are. They are impervious to the unusual and magical and fixated on the mundane. As she tells us in the first sentences, they are “the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious.” But she doesn’t stop at telling us that, she shows it to us in ways that are comical and that set up the conflict for Harry, who is magical! The fact that the Dursleys are SO ordinary is something that Rowling has to SHOW us because it’s crucial to the conflict of the novel!
TLDR? Here are the most important things to know about showing and telling
What we see by looking at examples of showing and telling side by side is that both can be effective strategies, but that we have to be very smart about when we use them. Most of the time, we want our writing to come alive in the readers’ minds and imaginations–this is why showing is so amazingly important.
And remember, showing dramatizes–it turns a flat painting into a moving picture. We need to dramatize our stories for our readers, particularly when a scene or emotion or set of character traits is CRUCIAL to the plot, the themes, the character motivations, or the conflict.
Finally, take a quick look at the tables above. Don’t read; just look. What’s the first thing you notice? The text in the “show” columns is much longer than the text in the “tell” columns. This visual difference illustrates two things. First, it takes more words to show. Dialogue and action slow things down and take more time on the page. Second, and more importantly, it’s a visual lesson about the amount of text in your novel that should show versus how much of it should tell. It’s a ratio in favor of showing.
Sure, tell your readers a bit, but SHOW them even more.
What do you guys think about showing and telling? How do you know what to show and what to tell as you write?