Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Show vs. tell: yeah, that old chestnut...

There was a great blog post I read last week, specifically the suggestion to:

Do a Subtlety Exercise: Go find your favorite scene in your favorite book. Re-read it, put it away and write down these things:

a) A description of what happens and why it’s important to the story
b) How you felt after reading it
c) What makes you love it so much

Using what you just wrote down, go back through the scene and see how much (or how little) of that is included word-for-word by the author. If you like the scene because the characters are just so madly in love and worried about each other, does the author actually say that? Or is their emotion shown through something else entirely, like a tense argument about which one of them must go into danger? 

You might have liked it for the “romance,” but what you actually read is an argument. The key is that a powerful writer can imply emotion without ever scripting it directly. You’ll be amazed how much authors leave off the page, allowing readers to fill it in on their own. And it works! Really well! One of the hardest and best lessons in writing is learning what NOT to put on the page. If you can hone your instincts here, it usually means lower word counts and seat-riveting scenes where every single word is packed with power and meaning.

That post was one of the reasons I decided to write this series of nerdy posts in the first place.

Show vs tell is one of the most common phrases thrown about online, and that's why I think it's a good starting place because it's so vague that it’s essentially meaningless. I think a better way of looking at the phrase isn't as one single problem/solution, but more of an umbrella term to describe writing without depth.

Bland, shallow writing has no voice, no subtext, cookie-cutter body language and/or description, and little ability to utilize quality over quantity.

Look Jane, see Spot. See Spot run.


Most definitely.

So, no more using ‘show vs tell’ because it’s such an amorphous phrase. We’re going for precision, so one piece of the problem at a time. I’m hoping, when this series of nerdy posts is over, that you can go back to the link above, re-read that scene from your favorite book that you love, and can better pinpoint ‘how’ the author did what they did.

The problem is when you don't know what you're looking for, which is why precision is the first step.

If I say, "Look", with no other information, how do you know you're focusing on what I want you to? 

On the other hand, if I point and say, "Look at that small child who is dripping chocolate ice cream down the front of her pretty red sun-dress." Now you can be confident we're both looking at the same thing.

I remember struggling, when it seemed like I was attacking from every angle and not getting any better, when I was frustrated with contradictory advice, and contradictory criticisms.

Being dyslexic means I had to make my own toolbox, since most of the ones out there don’t just fit. I’ll show you that tool-kit, and maybe something in there will make sense, so you can break writing down into smaller components, and it won’t feel so overwhelming.

Since my brain is in SCARLIGHT-mode, I’m going to use pieces of it for examples. If someone isn’t familiar with the basic premiss, the blurb can be found on the ‘What I’m Writing’ page, under Project #6.

If you don’t want to read that, the pertinent information is: the main character is Jay (Jason), a seventeen-year-old, already famous portrait artist who goes to a private school. He wants to use Kell, a girl from a public Fine Arts school, as his next model, and she’s somewhat resistant to that idea.

Again, to reiterate, I’m not saying, ‘this is the way to think/do things’. I don’t think my process/methods/weirdly-OCD-over-thinking will work for everyone, most likely it will work for very few...

BUT, if this series of posts helps even one or two people look at their own writing differently, if it helps them improve in the slightest, then I’m going to consider it a ‘win’.

I’ll take you down the rabbit hole... so jump in if you dare ;)


  1. I don't have any problem with the phrase innately, although its purpose shifts based upon your audience, POV, tone, and length, among other things. A MG short story written in 3rd-narrative will almost require a lot of "telling". In that case, it's perfectly fine. Even Robert Jordan "told" things sometimes if "showing" could hurt his pacing. I try my best to strike the right balance, which comes down to "showing" rather than "telling" in the end, even if it looks a little like "telling". My descriptions are incredibly short and to the point, but every word "told" has a purpose in mind. A problem arises when the narrator either summarizes things or tells things in such a way that they don't matter anymore. The effect made by telling someone that it's fall is lost and made void, but if you describe the setting just a little bit to show that it's fall, an emotional response can come out, which is really what I try to do with my writing. End of rant.

    1. The thing is, even 'told' sections can be beefed up with strong words, so they seem less like a "summary".

    2. Of course. As with any writing rule, if you're really adept you can break it without hurting your writing.

  2. "more of an umbrella term to describe writing without depth" <- THIS. Excellent and thorough post on the whole show-vs-tell debate. It's one of those phrases that gets thrown around so much that it has lost all its meaning, and it was a vague meaning to begin with! I would love, one day, to learn how to be that type of writer who can say more by saying less... and as a result, make more of an impact on the reader. Fingers crossed.

    1. Thanks ;) I'm glad, if nothing else, that description was useful to you ;)

      Hahaha, you and me both can dream of being that kind of writer ;) No wait, 'dream' is too passive... you and me can both work hard to be that kind of writer ;)

  3. Here’s a simple example from my WIP

    “It looks like summer.”

    “It looks like summer even though it’s September already. The trees are still green and full.”

    1. Better, for sure, but it would be stronger still to, perhaps, specify the trees and detail it a little more... like, if it's a maple tree, it's going to give a completely different image from a birch tree, or an oak tree.

  4. I've been in the stage of edits with a story where there's nothing mechanically wrong, but it's just not magically 'clicking' like I want it to. Thanks for blogging about this - it actually DOES help. I mean, I guess if I need to go re-read all my favorites in the name of Research... it's a hard job, but I'll power through.

    1. Oh, yeah, I hate that feeling ;) ...which is one of the reasons I totally get all OCD about analyzing things since, the more information you have, the better equipped you are to find a solution :)


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)