What Did You Learn?

June 24, 2010

General Writing: Show Don’t Tell

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: — ax20 @ 10:05 am

One of my all time favorite editing/writing phrases, I find myself writing this an obscene number of times when reviewing manuscripts. The point of a book is to immerse us in the world of the story. If you don’t show us the world you want us to connect to, how can we believe it, much less feel it?

For example, compare the two examples below:

1- He came at me with a sword and it was close. I just barely escaped with my life.

2- He came at me with a sword, forcing me to duck. I rolled out of the way just in time, as the blade sliced through where I had been just seconds before. I searched the ground for something–anything–to use for protection but all I could get my hands on was a rock. He lifted his sword to swing again. I grabbed the rock and threw it as hard as I could. He dodged it, giving me time to get back to my feet. I started running and he followed, but with his sword weighing him down, I was faster. Just barely escaped with my life.

After reading both, which one makes you feel more invested with the action? Clearly the second, because you could follow what was happening. It wasn’t an abstract scene where you need to figure out the details, it was something you could see.

The rule of show don’t tell applies to conversation as much as it does to action. Why should we guess what was actually said? The words that a character uses to describe things or say things says a lot about who they are.

Another pair of examples:

1- They argued loudly about whose fault it was. She blamed him for ignoring her. He told her that she was too needy.

2- “It’s your fault that this marriage is over! If you were here for me, just once!” she shouted through the sobs that she felt building in her chest.
“Me? You’re the problem! I can’t take this…this neediness. Can’t you do anything for yourself? Always calling, always, needing me to do things for you. ‘Tom, come bring my stuff upstairs for me,’ ‘Tom, I need you to be home by seven,’ ‘Tom, I need some money!'” he spat back angrily.
“All I’ve wanted is to spend time with you! You go out every night and I never know when you’re going to come home!” she cried. “I sit up waiting, hoping that something hasn’t happened to you! Every night!”

Clearly in the second example you can feel the fighting and the anger much better than in the first. Knowing exactly what they fought about helps us understand them.

There are exceptions to the show don’t tell rule of course. One such example is when relating a scene that we have already seen to another character. For example, we see the fight and then later Tom tells a buddy about it. We don’t need to rehash the entire thing because we’ve already seen it happen. If you repeat the event thoroughly over and over again, the audience will just feel that it is repetitive and get frustrated.

Unless of course, the rehashing actually reveals something about the character as well. For example, if Tom tells his buddy about the fight but his version of events doesn’t really match with what we’ve seen (either he’s lying or he’s got what I like to call “revisionist history”–convinces himself that something different from what actually took place happened–or some other possibility), this teaches us something important about Tom. Or perhaps Tom, though exceedingly angry during the fight, talks about the fight but is now sorry he didn’t listen to what his wife was saying, then perhaps hearing him retell it to show his regret is worth showing.

The point is, important details, especially when first being revealed, should always be shown in full to the readers. We want to see, feel, hear, taste, and smell what is going on and only by giving those things to us can we really relate to the story and immerse ourselves in the world that you are attempting to create.

(By the same token, sometimes the things that aren’t shown are just as important as what is. For example, you want a character to be believed dead but actually return later. You can show them being wounded or falling into some dangerous trap, but if you don’t show their actual body or their funeral, they aren’t necessarily dead, though the audience will most likely assume they are if done right. This is a technique used often in film and TV but it can be used in books as well.)


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