Sunday, December 04, 2011

Technical Topic -- Just a minithought on Show and Tell

Mostly, I hate to use the terms 'show' and 'tell' because I find them confusing.

I'd rather talk about basically the same concepts by calling them 'Here&Now' and 'Being Elsewhere'.

When the POV character is immersed in the sensory components of the scene or is involved in on-going action or is speaking dialog that deals with what's right there underfoot in the scene -- that's being in the Here&Now.

When the POV character is talking or thinking about stuff that's not going on at the moment in front of him, he's gone Elsewhere.  The character does this when he's adding backstory or infodumping or describing what happened last week or to his cousin who lives in Altoona or thinking about what he might do in the future and stufflikethatthere.

John picks up the toast and bites into it, tasting jelly
-- Here-and-Now
John burns his mouth on the hot coffee -- H&N
John remembers his mother made good coffee -- Elsewhere
John hits Maurice over the head with a hammer -- H&N
John sees Maurice fall down dead -- H&N
Three hours later John describes the murder to Mary -- E
John thinks about the morality of murder while driving home -- E
John is afraid he's going to get arrested and hides under the sink -- H&N
John buys bleach to clean up the murder scene - H&N
John and Thomas plan to bury the body --E
John and Thomas bury the body -- H&N 

In general, I try to stay in the Here and Now of the scene, because that's where the story is happening.

It's all very Zen, y'know.  If I stay with the POV character and he's immersed in what's going on around him, the reader gets to move through the scene and watch it unroll, event by event.  Everything is solid, sensory, relevant to this fictive instant, logically successive in time, each emotion related to the next action, showing motivation that forms minute by minute.  The reader is caught in a stream of events that pulls him along.

Whenever I take the reader Elsewhere, I relegate the experiences to second hand.  I pull the reader out onto the bank to show him birches and willowtrees.  They may be interesting, but they are static.  He's plucked out of the story.  No longer dragged along by it.

Somewhat, this is the difference between information and story action.
I get all philosophical here and ask myself about the nature of fiction.
The fictive experience does not lie in the knowledge of events.  It's being part of the events.

That said --  there is a place for just plain laying down information.  You have to do it.
But don't mistake conveying information with putting the character inside the ongoing story, which is your main objective.


  1. What a clear and concise way of explaining "show, not tell."

    The best teacher I ever had used to explain things at least three different ways to his class. If I didn't get it the first time, I was sure to get it by the time he was finished with the day's lecture.

    I liked your way of explaining something I've heard countless times.


  2. Thank you!

    I much prefer the H & N. It keeps the story tight and moving. That said, yesterday I finished the E I had been dreading. It was backstory that HAD to be said to make the story make sense. It was something the MC didn't know, but others did.

    It's hard not to make this sort of scene just talking heads.

  3. Hi Susan --

    And different ways of explaining the same thing show us there are different ways of seeing it. Or perhaps different aspects of the subject. The 'show don't tell' is related to depth of POV. I think.

    Sometimes, when we 'tell', we find ourselves easing out of Deep POV.

  4. Hi Betty -- I don't envy the task of feeding in backstory. That is technically difficult, no matter how you slice it and dice it.

    In Black Hawk, fr'instance, I found myself with a lot of backstory about Pax I wanted to add quickly. So I had Adrian and Pax stand there and say stuff to each other.

    The dreaded Talking Heads.

    What can we do?

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  6. Hi Jo,

    I also like this reframing of the show/tell distinction that creative writing manuals rant about. Your example from Black Hawk strikes me as maybe the exception that proves the rule. Even though Pax and Adrian have gone elsewhere, it's an elsewhere that was not only here and now in the same novel but here and now between the same two characters. It’s different at least in degree from the classic one where the heroine has a long conversation with the hero's best friend in which she learns about the hero's traumatic experiences on the battlefield. I also like how it plays with the “better the devil you know” axiom when it comes to how Adrian and Pax enter the service. I don’t think that would have the same resonance without the “talking heads” scene.

  7. Jo ~

    Ah! I relished that "talking heads" scene between Adrian and Pax. Pax became a real person not just someone conveniently lurking around the sidelines and bopping people on the head when needed. That's what good backstory does, to my mind, it develops characters. We don't notice the infodump so much then.

    In my story, the backstory is basically about the MC, but it is told by another character. Consequently, we learn more about the character telling the story. That was needed, too.

  8. What Betty said. I've read that scene several times.

  9. "Your example from Black Hawk strikes me as maybe the exception that proves the rule."

    Exactly yes. The exceptions to the 'Stay on Target', 'Stay on Target' are always interesting.

    When we just plain need to convey information, we maybe reluctantly decide to go with Talking Heads. We gird our loins -- probably we go into private to do that -- and we bring our characters on stage and turn 'em loose to tell each other what we want the reader to know.

    I talk about this Talking Heads process here:

    and here:

    in my lengthy and discursive way.

    In the Pax + Adrian scene, have we moved that backstory into the Here&Now by tying it to some Story Action?

    I hope so, a little bit.

    The characters are Talking-Head-ing . . . but I hope the reader sees this in the context of the current story. The -- 'What is Adrian Going To Do Now?' 'How Does Justine React to Adrian's Emotional Response?'

    And, what Betty points out. If we must pause to fold in backstory, we can make it shine a light on our characters.

    There are several reasons to sloooow down pacing. One of them is -- we want to look at the characters for a while.

  10. Great post, really helps explain something I wasn't sure about either. Thanks.

  11. Jo, first class post on staying in the moment. Strangely enough, I think it applies to life as well. Anyway, I may have to steal, er, borrow some bits of this. You'd make a great teacher.

    Barbara R.

  12. Hi Catherine --

    I'm glad this was of some use.

    One aspect of 'Showing' versus 'Telling' is that 'showing', or being right there in the now moment helps to keep us deep in POV. Always useful.

  13. Hi Barbara --

    *g* Help yerself. The ideas are hardly original to me.

    I don't read a lot of manuals on writing, though I should, but I'm pretty sure they all cover this stuff.