Show vs. Tell

“They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.” I don’t know who said that, but they are right. And they are wrong too, but not the way you might think.

Writers are constantly told, “show, don’t tell,” nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Some of the most popular books of previous eras were nearly all tell. Look at Pride and Prejudice (Austin) or Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus) by Shelley. Both stories are handily “told” and both are great stories, now considered classics. In fact, in that day and age, the structure of nearly all novels was that of a tale well told. The only place a reader was shown a story was on the stage. And people liked it that way.

However, I would venture to guess that, were they submitted to a publisher today, these classics might never make it to publication.  There is no doubt that time and tastes have changed. Modern readers tend to want to be dumped into the story en medias res as they say. We want instant gratification. Show us someone jumping out of a plane, THEN tell us why he’s doing it.

With that in mind, what are some ways to show the story rather than telling it?

  • Dialogue: Having once character mention/explain/inform another of something is showing what is happening, despite the fact that someone is getting told. Not only can dialogue move the plot along, it provides opportunities for character building, revealing motivation, foreshadowing, exposition and a host of other things. Consider using voice and action tags to convey emotion. For instance:
  • “You don’t have to tell me.” Sara blew a jet of air into her bangs, sending them floating.

Or

  • “You don’t have to tell me.” Sara grinned at him and laid a possessive hand on his arm.

Setting: Location, time, weather, etc. are all important elements in a story. But how you use them can be vital to building mood and tone, as well as providing opportunities for world building.

  • It was noon on the fourth of July. The weather was hot and humid in the city park.

Or

  • The clock in its tower chimed twelve times, heat rippling off the pale brick church-front in waves. Sara tugged the pink t-shirt away from her damp skin and swiped a hand along her hairline. It came away as wet as if she’d been standing in a downpour, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Action: Telling gets all the information out there quickly and succinctly, but showing action adds color and emotional dimension in ways that telling can’t. Especially when used with rich imagery, showing connects the reader to the character.

  • He walked toward the building, turning left along the concrete pathway. He felt irritated that he had to come here, but resigned. He snagged his pants on a rosebush. The fabric tore, making him even angrier.

Or

  • He slouched along the concrete path that led to the building, muttering protestations under his breath. A tug on his pants leg turned his attention down. He’d caught the cuff on a rose brier. Swearing darkly, he jerked the material free, ripping it in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. Telling has its place. It provides a method of quickly giving information and sometimes, that’s just what’s needed. For deeper engagement and a breathtaking scene, an author’s best bet is show, however.

Both show and tell are tools in the author’s chest. The trick is deciding which is best for the needs of the scene.


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