As writers we hear this phrase all the time. Now, if you’re not a writer you might be one of those lucky individuals that has not heard that phrase ad nauseum, I will explain. It is THE phrase agents consistently tout as what an author needs to do. If you think it might be confusing- you would be right. There are many different takes on what should be shown, what should be told and some even refer to it as “the golden rule of writing” (let me just tell you what a load I think that is- or not) while I simply maintain that both need to happen. Like any kind of art it’s about balance.
Ex: When he recalled seeing his wife in bed with his best friend he got so angry he could spit/ (tell) // Blood pulsed and pumped rapidly through his body, a red haze filling his vision as he recalled the scene he had hastily departed from only moments before. (show)
The key difference is I’m showing how the anger manifested itself in his body, how he’s experiencing it. It’s a stronger statement for sure. Now here’s the annoying part of this rule. It can’t apply to everything.
Ex: Deftly he picked up the phone and murmured, “Hello.” (tell) // Slowly his arm reached out, fingers grasping the cool plastic before bringing it to his ear and saying, “Hello.” (show) However- in that particular instance, if you’re going for the creep factor I would imagine something like this would work quite well: Goosebumps ran across his flesh, cool air of unknown origin ran past him as a sense of foreboding wrapped around him. Slowly, hands shaking, he reached out and grasped the phone so hard his knuckles turned white, “Hello?” (It’s no Stephen King sentence but not too bad, eh?)
Now, there isn’t anything wrong per sae with the latter sentence but if it’s supposed to move quickly you just made the reader swallow a whole bunch of words to get to “hello”. I’m not one of those that thinks of it as a bad thing really, but if it’s quickly paced I’ll skim over that sentence without giving two hoo-has about what speed he picked the phone up. Really. I don’t care. Did you? I didn’t think so. You might ask “why does the phone matter at all?” to which I would say this: If our protagonist is alone it would be useful to know that he isn’t a) talking to himself, b) his fairy godmother didn’t magically appear (or he’s psychotic, take your pick), c) he wasn’t answering the door.
There are examples on this site about it but I think they go too far the other direction with the showing and get too explicit (i.e. information dump- you’ve read them before. Those are the scenes where you find out about everyone in the heroine’s family for the last six generations in one paragraph. You know: info [family] + paragraph [dump]). Again- balance. You give too much, it’s annoying (and you can’t please everyone so you’re bound to annoy someone); you give too little, it’s annoying. However, at this site, Bransford does an excellent job with talking about the best places to show and thus takes some of the guess work out of the scenarios.
Admittedly I looked over all that today because I got a little freaked looking over my completed manuscript (that I’m editing again before I submit it to a BIG contest), then my current project and thought “but is this telling or is this showing?”- then I had a melt down. Which prompted me to hunt down some chocolate.
I am always striving to be better- better than I was when I started my first manuscript (I can definitely say I am, thank you very much), better than I was a month ago and probably even better than I was five minutes ago. I am, what many people would call, very Type A.
As my very own exercise I figured I’d take a paragraph from my completed manuscript and reverse it (don’t worry I’ll show you the actual paragraph below). Tell: Afraid, in pain, she reached behind her and felt around for the gun. Reluctant muscles pulled the gun up and pushed it into his abdomen. She bit down on her lip, held her hand steady and pulled the trigger.
Show: Memories tore through her as his fingers ran over her battered body. Not again. Never again. With fingers that shook, pain shooting through her arm, she reached behind her and fumbled around until she felt the cool metal of the gun tease her fingertips. She commanded her muscles to do her bidding, to pull the gun up and press the barrel of it into his belly. The tremors worked their way through her arm, making her bite down hard on her lip, as she forced her hand to hold steady and pull the trigger.
I like the “show” version better for obvious reasons I think. The suspense is different when you really feel the struggle in both the rhythm of the words and the detail they give. Sure you know what happened by reading the first paragraph but that second one makes you feel what she does (at least I hope it does). And thus ends a blog about show vs. tell. Now, if you’re a writer and partaking in the insanity that is NaNoWriMo: “Go forth and write!” If you, however, are not: “Read good stuff!” or “Edit, edit, edit!”