Definitions

show advantage

Show, don't tell

Show, don't tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description.

History

An early example of giving this advice lies with Henry James. In the preface to the New York edition of Daisy Miller, he left a pencil-mark in the margins of his notes, reminding himself to 'Dramatize, dramatize!'

The mantra "Show, don't tell" has become stock advice for fiction-writers; proponents abound. Janet Evanovich considers it one of the most important principles of fiction. ". . . instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.

Not all writing coaches and bestselling authors agree that "Show, don't tell" is sound advice. According to Renne Browne and Dave King, narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of writing. Narrative summary can also be useful where the story has a lot of repetitive action. Also, some plot developments are simply not important enough to justify scenes. As indicated by Peter Selgin, the main advantage of summary is that it takes up less space.

According to Orson Scott Card, "showing" is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes. The objective is to get the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Either could be right; either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play. The issue of when to "show" and when to "tell" is subject to ongoing debate.

Examples

When applying "show, don't tell", the writer does more than just tell the reader something about a character; he unveils the character by what that character says and does. Showing can be done by:

  • writing scenes
  • describing the actions of the characters
  • revealing character through dialogue
  • using the five senses when possible

Instead of telling:

Mrs. Parker was nosy. She gossiped about her neighbors.

the writer could show:

By turning the blinds ever so slightly, Mrs. Parker could just peek through the window and see the Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. She squinted to get a better view of the tall, muscular man getting out of the vehicle and walking up to Mrs. Jones' front door. He rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Jones opened the door and welcomed the stranger into her home with a hug, Mrs. Parker gasped and ran to her phone.

"Charlotte, you are not going to believe what I just saw!" Mrs. Parker peeked out the window again to see if the man was still inside.

Telling:

"Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown up in Brooklyn and didn't want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended a party at their neighbors' house."

Showing:

"I told you I didn't want to go to this," Linda said as she stood beside John on their neighbors' steps. "It's just going to be as lame as every other party we've been to since we got here."

"You used to love parties," John said, avoiding eye contact.

"Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn't Brooklyn."

"No." He looked at the mountains, colored flame by the setting sun, the sky he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had.

Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. "It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience.

Exceptions to the rule

"Show, don't tell", like all rules, has exceptions. According to James Scott Bell: "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted. Even in the previous example, in the midst of "showing" a reader is still "told" about a different plot point ("In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had")

Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time. A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. For example, if George is a character in a story, he could do the following things:

  • Have an argument with his boss
  • Drive to his girlfriend's house
  • Have an argument with his girlfriend

The writer could show the arguments with George's boss and girlfriend, but tell the reader George drove over to his girlfriend's house without excess narrative. As long as nothing important to the story happens on that drive, then the writer need only tell the reader.

The writer may also want to use telling to reveal to the reader that the narrator of the story (see point-of-view) is not reliable. The narrator may say that George is a great guy, but later George reveals himself to be a jerk through showing. Then the reader can decide that the narrator of this story doesn't see George for who he is.

There is also the crucial point made by poet and essayist Mario Petrucci that, "expert telling, if it's used sparingly and is utterly earned by the author, may embody an emotive or psychological moment just as effectively as showing".

Francine Prose (author of Blue Angel and Reading Like a Writer) says of the rule: "[The Alice Munro passage] contradicts a form of bad advice often given young writers--namely, that the job of the author is to show, not tell. Needless to say, many great novelists combine 'dramatic' showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out... when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.

See also

References

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