From the Vaults: The Mysterious Case of Show vs. Tell
Originally published on November 17, 2013.
Featuring prior co-host Steve McLain.
This cast was originally, and is rebroadcast, as audio only.
This week Steve and I delve into the Mysterious Case of Show vs. Tell. Most writers can tell you what the difference is between the two, but there’s a fine art to balancing the level of detail in your book. When should you show? When should you tell? Here’s our take on the case. You can listen below, subscribe on Stitcher or iTunes, or download the file here.
First things first: what do we mean by Show vs. Tell? The difference is simple. Showing is an expansion of facts into sensory detail, while telling is a compression of facts into more of a summary. Think of a simple sentence: She was sad. This may be true, but what does sad look like (her shoulders slumped, her head bowed, her eyes staring at her chipped nail polish)? What does it feel like (ice flows in the river of her heart, a voracious emptiness gnawing at her stomach, the heat of tears behind her eyes)? What does it sound like (a stunted whimper, then a prolonged shriek of disbelief and horror)?
Think of it this way: the reader doesn’t want to be told about the time you fell in love; they want to fall in love. They don’t want to hear your story of how you battled the ice dragon on the pinnacle of Mt. Destruction; they want to hike up the snowy peak with a shield and sword strapped to their backs; they want to feel the heat of the fiery breath of the beast on their skin.
Our emotions are nothing more than physical responses to outside stimulus. There is a physiological reaction when our lives are threatened. Our hearts beat faster. Our muscles tense. Our mind becomes immediately focused and clear and free from distraction. The goal of Show Don’t Tell is to tap into the physical reactions of our emotions and portray them in such a way that our readers experience them.
Our characters’ responses to outside stimulus reveal who they are. If they face the deadly dragon with confidence and anticipation, we’ll know they’ve trained for this moment. If their mind blanks and their knees slacken, we’ll know they’re terrified. If their tongue thickens when speaking to a beautiful woman, we know they’re insecure, maybe even intimidated by beauty and popularity.
At certain points in your novel or story, you’ll want to slow down your pacing and go into great detail, either about the setting or your character. This break in the action helps to emphasize whatever action precedes or follows it. Steve Almond calls this “the lyric register,” and encourages us to find our near-poetic voices. This level of sensory detail can help a story come to life, can turn lifeless words on pages into living, breathing experiences for our reader.
But it is possible to show too much. If you’re writing an action scene, you’ll want to focus more on the immediate threat. You don’t need to go into detail about a flowerbed, let’s say, unless the flowers play some integral role in a chase scene. You’ll also want to avoid excess detail when talking about minor characters. We don’t need to know the waitresses back story if she only appears on scene to deliver a plate of fried eggs and bacon. Instead, one or two details (what your character would naturally notice) will suffice. Think “The waitress with the pretty blue eyes set a plate of fried eggs and bacon in front of him. He liked butterfly tattoo on her wrist.” This small detail will help characterize the waitress without having pages of description about her.
Be aware, though. Small, memorable details like that often become guns over the mantle. Anton Checkhov famously said that if you take the time to describe a gun hanging over the mantle, at some point, the gun must come down (and, I’d add, it must go off). Reader’s have a way of latching on to seemingly innocuous descriptions and imagining something important will come of them later.
You’ll also want to avoid showing the reader things they’ve already seen. Think of an epic fantasy in which our heroes are separated for a long period of time. When they reunite, they’ll want to tell each other about what happened to them. This is a point where telling is not only okay, it’s expected. If we’ve already seen the events of Bob’s story, we don’t need to hear him retell them to Sally.
If you’re ever stuck as to whether or not you should show or tell, the default answer is to show. You can always take it out later if you need to. Then, ask yourself this: does this scene revolve around my main character? If so, you’ll want to show. If not, then telling will be appropriate. And if you’re trying to make someone sad, resist the urge to show. Telling becomes very important when trying to show sadness. Anton Chekhov says “When you depict sad or unlucky people, try to be cold. It gives their sorrow, as it were, a background.” The lack of detail becomes a striking contrast to the sorrow, and intensifies it.
Finding the balance of detail can be tricky, but it is necessary. These tips should help. If we’ve missed anything, let us know. We’d love to hear from you. Until next week, good writing.