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Show, but Sometimes Tell

I've finished outlining my fantasy trilogy and finally started writing the thing. Shocking, right? And you thought I was going to talk about it endlessly but never follow through. (That's okay. I kind of did too.)

Now the problem is, I'm terribly out of practice writing fiction. After Kagemusha I swore off novels forever. Then I changed my mind and outlined some stories that turned out to be terrible ideas. And then I started plotting this trilogy...last June. Egads.

During the past nine months, I concentrated my studies on story structure. What is a story, what is a conflict, what makes a conflict interesting, etc. I watched many dramas and read many novels and picked them apart to figure out what made them effective (or not).

But I didn't study writing. Voice. Mood. Pacing. All that good stuff. To recycle a metaphor from an old post, I've become reasonably proficient at baking cakes. But now I have to figure out how to decorate them nicely. And to cite another old post, both substance and presentation are important in writing.

So I'm slowly redirecting the focus of my musings from creating stories to writing them. The topic for today is that infamous adage, "Show, don't tell."

What Showing Is and Isn't

The word showing is misleading. In everyday use it means "to cause or allow something to be seen," so you might think narrative showing means writing a novel like it's a play-by-play of a movie. Describe all emotions through facial features, all reactions through body language, all scenes like the reader is watching them unfold on a screen. I've seen writing articles advocate describing "what the camera sees." This is a terrible misunderstanding of what showing means.

Books aren't movies. Reading a book is a very different experience from watching a movie. The advice to "show, don't tell" doesn't mean you should give visual descriptions of everything. Rather, it means you should provide solid evidence of characters' thoughts and feelings through their choices and experiences.

Let's say you're writing a romance and want to communicate that your hero, Daniel, is in love with your heroine, Sarah. You can take several approaches.

First, you can tell. The hero says to his best bro, "I think I'm in love with Sarah." Or during a scene with Sarah, you tell us point blank, "At that moment, Daniel realized he was in love."

Second, you can show the way a movie does. You can describe Daniel's eyes softening, his heart pounding, his fingers tingling when they brush against Sarah's.

Third, your hero can demonstrate his feelings through his actions. At the scene level, he might subtly show off his best traits around Sarah, find excuses to sit close to her and touch her hand, or go out of his way to make her happy. At the plot point level, he might sacrifice something he values to be with her, like a precious friendship or a career opportunity.

The three approaches above are in order of narrative impact. Telling has the least impact and elicits the smallest emotional response from the reader. Showing the physical symptoms of an emotion is okay in small doses, but too many bitten lips and thumping hearts will come across as lazy attempts to dodge telling. Demonstrating the hero's feelings through his choices and behavior is the most powerful way to do it.

When Telling Is Best

Many writers think of telling as a deadly poison so toxic that the tiniest whiff of it will kill a book dead. But there are many times when telling is the best approach.

When an event is inherently boring, showing it won't make it more interesting. For anything mundane that doesn't move the story forward, you can simply tell it and get it out of the way. There's no point in showing readers how a gentle spring breeze caressed the heroine's face during the short walk from her sky-blue convertible to the cafe, and a bell on the door jingled as she entered, and she closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting scents of coffee and scones, and then she glanced at the antique clock on the wall and realized she was ten minutes early, so she ordered a mochaccino with extra whipped cream and sipped the hot, sweet liquid while waiting for her friend Jane.

You lose nothing by cutting that out and telling us, "Sarah arrived at the cafe ten minutes early. She sipped a mochaccino while waiting for Jane." Then Jane arrives and interesting things happen.

Telling can also be necessary for clarity. Sometimes writers, including me, try too hard to show things creatively. For example, a writer determined to be clever might show that Sarah is ten minutes early by saying, "She glanced at the antique clock on the wall. The long pewter minute hand pointed at the X."

This sentence shows "what the camera sees," so it's great writing, right? No. Not right. It's horribly confusing. A movie audience can look at a brief shot of an analog clock and know what time it is, but a reader has to envision the thing, mentally convert the Roman numeral to a digit, and figure out what it means when the minute hand points at the 10.

When Showing Is Best

The point of showing is to transform reading from a passive activity to an interactive one. When you show things instead of stating them outright, readers engage with the story by immersing themselves in the scenes and using their imaginations to interpret them.

There's no point in making a reader work hard to interpret what time it is, so telling is the better choice in the theoretical example above. But there is a point in making a reader work hard to figure out what characters are thinking and feeling and what they might do next. The process of interpretation creates sympathy.

If you want to convey that Sarah is angry, you could write this.

Sarah smiled and thanked Johnny for the souvenir, but inside she was seething.

This does indeed convey that Sarah is angry. But readers will simply think, Okay, she's angry. They won't feel anything.

Instead, you could write this.

Sarah smiled and thanked Johnny for the souvenir. She kept on smiling as Johnny winked and left the room. She picked up the snow globe. Glitter swirled around the plastic Statue of Liberty.

She threw the globe at the wall. The glass shattered. Sparkling slime dribbled down the dark wood.

Now to understand Sarah's actions, readers will put themselves in her place. They'll remember times when they too felt the urge to smash things against walls. They'll feel that rage and frustration afresh. This is sympathy. (Of course they won't realize they're doing all this, because it's instinctual. We're very social creatures and develop empathy naturally by the age of six or seven.)

Therefore, showing is the better choice for any concept or event that should have emotional impact. If you want the reader to cry, swoon, rage, or cheer about something, you must show it. Telling won't cut it.

Last month I read a high fantasy about a teenage girl, we'll call her Georgette, who has a gift for Dragon Magic. It's illegal for females to use Dragon Magic, so she disguises herself as a young boy, George, to train as an apprentice Dragon Master.

The first quarter of the book builds up to the annual ceremony to select a new Dragon Master. All seems lost when the dragon chooses another candidate. But then the ruler of the dragons, the Dragon Queen, appears in the mortal world for the first time in centuries—and selects Georgette. To bond with her, Georgette must call out her true name. But revealing her name would reveal her sex, and then she would be executed. So she instead shouts that her name is George, and the Dragon Queen fades away in disappointment.

This is the most dramatic scene in the novel so far. The reader is supposed to sympathize with Georgette and feel the terror and desperation that drives her choice. Instead, I felt impatient.

The problem: this book tells the reader that a girl using Dragon Magic is punishable by death, but it never shows the danger the heroine is in. Georgette says several times that she'll die if anyone discovers her secret. But the reader doesn't see any actual threats to her life, or to the life of another girl who committed a similar crime. For example, Georgette could have witnessed the beheading of a woman who'd taken her brother's place in the army, or she could have had a friend who died in the past after getting caught practicing Dragon Magic. Then readers would have shared Georgette's terror and felt the full weight of her plight.

But because this "certain death" was purely theoretical, I felt nothing. When the Dragon Queen demanded Georgette's true name and she thought, No! That would mean my death!, I thought, "Girl, if you say two syllables you'll be the most powerful person in the empire. I'm pretty sure that enormous dragon can take on an executioner with a dinky little axe." The scene was a great idea, but conveying Georgette's internal conflict through telling alone sucked the tension out of it.

Now for a positive example: Harriet Bulstrode from Middlemarch. Harriet is a bubbly woman who loves fashionable clothes and fancy hats. When a scandal ruins her husband's reputation, this is how she reacts.

She took off all her ornaments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and large bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet-cap, which made her look suddenly like an early Methodist.

...[As] she went towards him she thought he looked smaller—he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly—

"Look up, Nicholas."

He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, "I know;" and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side.

This scene wouldn't be nearly as touching if Harriet had instead made a big speech about how she'll stand by her man, as characters in modern novels often do.

I think the art of showing has deteriorated somewhat because standards for communication are much different now than they were in 1874, when Middlemarch was published. In days of old, reading between the lines was an important social skill. As a young man says to his Victorian father at the end of The Age of Innocence, "You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath."

But these days, we in the Western world value frankness and have little patience for people who beat around the bush. We don't try to read minds or expect other people to read ours. When we want to express something, we simply say it. We don't come up with sneaky ways to demonstrate our intentions, like 19th-century grand dames expressing severe disapproval by serving low tea on the cheap china.

Because writers today are more likely to tell than show in real life, showing in novels has been reduced to clenched fists and somersaulting stomachs and "what the camera sees." Think bigger! Think Victorian! Think about how a character expresses himself through actions and how his choices contradict his words, not just about whether his eyes are stormy or twinkling.

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