Blogger Backgrounds

Monday, June 29, 2009

Show versus Tell--when to tell, examples

Camy here: Since so many people asked me to, I ran a series of blog posts with examples about when it was better to tell rather than show. This is a compilation of those blog posts. If I post additional examples, I'll just add them to this article.

Also, remember, these are not hard and fast rules about when to show and when to tell. Please do not take these examples as such. Ultimately, it's up to you as the writer since it's YOUR manuscript. Utilize whatever is best for your writing voice, the rhythm and pacing you're aiming for, or the atmosphere you're trying to obtain.

For examples of "telling," see this article.

Telling isn’t always bad. In fact, sometimes it’s preferable. However, you ought to have a darn good reason to tell.

One reason could be to telescope time. If you’re skipping from one place to another, or one time to another, that’s where telling is good.

Say Joe has been arrested and then in the next scene, he’s talking to his jailmate. It’s okay to tell in a sentence or two what happened in between. The reader doesn’t need to know all that detail, and it’s useful for letting the reader know that time has elapsed.

The police slapped the handcuffs on him.

Exactly forty-two minutes later, after being slightly roughed around by the cops who processed him, Joe turned to his bunk mate with a casual, “Got a smoke?”


Or

Joe got on the plane, flew to San Jose, and rented a car.

Two hours and one accident during rush hour later, he arrived at Amelia’s house, ready to break some heads.


Here, we didn’t need to see everything Joe did on the plane, in renting the car, in sitting in traffic. We just need to know what’s going to happen next.

So in these examples, telescoping time and/or space is a perfectly legitimate reason for telling instead of showing.

Another reason is if the action isn’t emotionally important. The reader doesn’t need to read detail if it’s not important for the story.

For example, the reader doesn’t need to read every step as Joe walks into his bathroom, brushes his teeth, combs his hair, shaves, etc. “Joe got ready for work” is sufficient.

Another example is when a character is telling another character what happened to him. Since we as the reader already know all the events he’s relating, we don’t need to read his dialogue telling his friend.

Jason Bourne related everything to other agent as he tied him up and set the house to blow up.


In the example above, we also didn’t need to follow all of Bourne’s actions as he rigged the house, because it’s not emotionally important.

However, what if the agent has information to impart while Bourne is telling the agent what happened to him? What if the agent can explain why so-and-so shot at Bourne, why such-and-such agency never existed, etc.?

In that case, show the complete dialogue between Bourne and the agent, because the information the agent gives him will cause an emotional reaction in Bourne and influence his decisions about what to do next.

Therefore, if the actions aren’t emotionally significant to the story or plot, telling is preferred. But if there will be emotionally relevant information, then go ahead and show it.

Sometimes you want to deliberately distance the reader from the character or action. It might be a decision you make based on pacing or emotional flow or simply word and sentence cadence. In that case, go ahead and tell. But make sure you have a good reason in your own mind for telling.

Why hadn’t he asked her for her phone number? (showing)


versus

She wondered why he hadn’t asked her for her phone number. (telling) No, she didn’t want to think about it. Too painful.


In the first example, the question is very blunt and emotional.

In the second example, I chose to keep the reader distanced from the emotion because the character herself is trying to distance herself from the emotion. The telling achieves the same sort of emotional distance or denial that the character is going through.

So, if you have a reason for telling, go for it. Sometimes it’s more effective.

One reason that people give for “telling” is one that I don’t like, although some of you might not agree with me. Some people use “telling” because they say they don’t have the word count for “showing.”

For example, many category books are shorter, and some authors say they have to tell in order to make the book hit their lower word count.

I don’t agree (but some of you might not feel the same way). While it’s true that showing often has a larger word count, there are more creative ways to show that will match the word count of a section of telling.

Also, a lot of times, the story doesn’t need that section of telling at all. I’ve seen many manuscripts with telling where the information isn’t necessary for the reader to understand and enjoy the story.

Or maybe the information can be snuck with in a phrase or sentence later in the manuscript where it's more pertinent to the current action.

My suggestion is that before you decide to “tell” something, ask yourself or your crit partners if the information imparted is absolutely vital to the story, especially at that moment. You may discover that you don’t absolutely need it. If you don’t need it, cut it. Make your word count with vibrant prose rather than prose with lots of telling.

If an editor later asks you add in more telling, that’s infinitely better than being rejected because your prose is too bland with too much telling.

7 comments:

  1. Very helpful. Thanks Camy! I really like the Writing Tip for the Day as well. It's a good one - and a hard one!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This was refreshing post, Camy! I get so anxious about telling sometimes and sometimes I feel that it is simply necessary. With all of the show don't tell, it is good know when telling is useful.
    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for such a great post, Camy. This was incredibly helpful info.!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks, guys! I'm glad it was helpful! If you have questions, just post them here and I'll answer them!
    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, Camy. This was very helpful to me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well said!

    I was beginning to follow "showing" as a religious practice, carrying it to extremes, but your article has been a much-needed speed breaker.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts with Thumbnails