Monday, January 22, 2007

Technical Topic -- Show, Don't Tell

The truism, 'Show, don't tell,' covers a lot of territory.

On a 'whole-story' level this means plotting that uses dialog and action and internals to tell the story
rather than narration.

Not -- Twelve battalions converged on the small town of Chesterton, determined to quench the fire of the rebellion.

But -- Tony looked out the window at dawn. Rose-white lights circled the horizon, strangely, horribly beautiful. Campfires. The enemy had arrived.

'Tell' tells the story.
'Show' puts us inside the story.

Plotting for 'show-not-tell' on a whole-story level,
means general avoidance of scenery, exposition, description, backstory, explanation
and all the other ways the author speaks directly to the reader,
where action can be used instead.

On the level of a scene, 'show-not-tell', means information is conveyed not in narration, but in action and dialog.

-- Information comes to the reader through the filter of a character's perception.

-- It comes in real time, at the speed of the character's emotional response. (One easy way to 'show-not-tell' is just to slow the hell down.)

-- 'Show' concentrates on specifics that can be touched, smelled, heard and seen. 'Show' is about close stuff. About pokable, sniffable, pick-it-up stuff.

-- When we 'show' ... every object is in an intimate and immediate context.
The fictive world is stripped of what happened three years ago or in another country or the everyday usage of the object or what the dumwhizzle thingum was called in Egypt during the Twelfth Dynasty.
Objects and actions are what's happening now.

-- The scene is focussed by the character's attention. The reader 'sees' only what the character is interested in.

Not -- Jeremy was a hopeless gawk. He'd been that way since High School.
which is narration and the writer speaking to the audience.

But -- Jeremy tangled himself in the front door mat, the dog -- appropriately named 'Trip' -- the overturned aspidistra and his shoe laces. What a klutz. "You haven't changed a bit," she said.
which is action, an internal, and dialog.

Deep Character Point of View tends to keep us in 'showing' mode.
(There are so many reasons to write in Deep Character Point of View.)
So a good, easy, natural path to 'show-not-tell' is to review deep POV and learn to get into it and stay there.

In the interests of not throwning the baby out with the bathwater --

let me add that sometimes you find yourself with information to convey that can't be easily put into a character's thoughts or words or shown by a character's actions.
(This is a good time to ask yourself if you really need this information. Hmmm? Do you? Are you sure?)

If you need the specific info,
this may be one of the many times the writer conveys complex information economically and simply by 'telling'.

Joshua lifted the cup to his lips. Coffee. The true bean of it, and fresh. Coffee came to Latruria by caravan over the hills of Ghangith. That path had been blocked for months by the mountain bandits. The only other source was the sea route. Smugglers. Jandru's smugglers.

He set the cup down without drinking. "How long have you been in Jandru's pay, Madame?"

So sometimes we 'tell-not-show'.

It's not that 'tell' is wrong and 'show' is right.
They serve different purposes.

Basically -- nobody ever felt her heart going all pitter patter because the narrator says 'John explained to Myra how much he loved her. He was extremely eloquent.'

Showing sucks us into the story. Telling informs us.
You need both.

Ideally, you know when you're showing and when you're telling, and you know why.


  1. Jo, have you ever considered writing a book about How To Write Good? In all seriousness, you are one of the best, and it would certainly help out the rest of us ignorant plebs. Put me down for one, okay? Pam

  2. Hey --

    There's an order to this.

    First you write books.
    Then you set up a website.
    Then you put writing advice on your website.

    THEN you write a writing book ....

  3. hmmm seems you've done 3 outta 4 ...

  4. There is a Catch-22 Thingum here.

    If you are writing and published and you have deadlines, you have no time to write books on how to write . . .

    Though obviously OTHER writers find the time. How do they do this? How? How? How?

  5. Perchance these other writers do not have deadlines because no one is interested in their new book ideas? I dunno.
    Myself, I would benefit from a book on How To Tell Your Boss That You Don't Want To Work 80 Hour Weeks Because You Need To Write A Book Damn It.
    Or at least a book on how to write without whining about your day job. One of the two.

    1. I suspect folks just concentrate more on their writing and get it done faster. Or they work more efficiently.
      I am promising myself to do both of those. Concentrate and work efficiently.

      The day job is a problem. Really a problem. One must become expert in shoehorning the writing into 20-minute intervals.

      And whining is good. It helps us cope. Think of the traditional grousing of the foot soldier. It's not shirking the fight. It's making it bearable.