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Show Don't Tell

As writers, we have probably heard the advice ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s worth closely examining why this advice is prevalent and why it is so popular. We might also discover why it doesn’t always apply.

We can imagine a spectrum with pure ‘Telling’ at one end and pure ‘Showing’ at the other.

If you want to communicate information to a reader ‘telling’ is a quick, efficient way to do that in a short amount of time. Relaying information is sometimes part of what story-telling does: you can use it for moving a timeline along (‘Meanwhile, back at the ranch…’), or where showing mundane details would be tedious. But even those two functions could be done better by showing.

This goes right to the root of what you are trying to do with a story. If you want the reader to move, physically (as in raised or lowered heart rate) emotionally (towards happiness or sadness or somewhere in between) and intellectually (towards or away from a particular idea) you have to use mechanisms which pull him or her along - in other words, this ‘movement’ is not figurative, it’s real. If you want the reader to stay still, physically (as in no physical reactions at all) emotionally (unaffected) and intellectually (no change mentally about anything) then don’t use such mechanisms and tell the reader everything instead.

One of the most powerful and universal mechanisms used to move readers is the thing called a ‘character’. There is a great deal to be said about characters - much of it has been said already in How Stories Really Work - but in effect a character is a ‘proxy reader’, a device for sucking the reader’s attention onto the page and moving it along. This can only happen if the character is visibly doing something rather than just saying something.

Readers need to experience important parts of the story with the characters. Just being told what is happening or has happened strips out of the story most of the elements which make it a story in the first place: the sense of emptiness within which motivates a character; the feeling of suspense implicit in not knowing what will happen next; the hint of mystery apparent in not knowing what might be going on beneath the surface. Without these, and a few more things that ‘showing’ does for readers, you might as well write a report, a letter, or an article, not a story.

Movement along the spectrum from telling to showing is a motion towards ‘story’ itself; movement the other way is a motion away from fiction and towards journalism.

Having said that, there are some important exceptions.

One is the use of telling to intensify depth and meaning at appropriate points. The example of Gandalf battling the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings comes to mind here: quite apart from that fact that, had that fight been told at the moment when it occurred, it would have removed all the drama of Gandalf’s disappearance from the story, there is another and even more important aspect to consider - by its very nature, such a battle between superhuman forces of good and evil is something that cannot be shown directly in the ordinary sequence of the story without changing the essence the tale itself. The story of the quest to destroy the One Ring is being told from the viewpoint (mainly) of the hobbits from the Shire, almost lost in a world which seems far too large for them, full of unknown wonders and horrors which are only progressively shown to them. Had Tolkien sat back and simply told us about these things, their dramatic power would have been largely neutralised - but, even more importantly, to leave the hobbits and to take the viewpoint of Gandalf, one of the most powerful entities in the tale, would have changed the character of the story from carefully-woven legend to full-blown myth. We would have seen, first-hand, a struggle between angelic and demonic forces rather than had such a world-shattering event reported to us some time later, softening its effect and deepening the overall result of the tale rather than undermining it.

So ‘telling’ has a place in the scheme of fiction. When a writer is moving a story along using suspense, mystery, morality and meaning, he or she can afford to pause and tell us about something which adds to that movement in the long run. But if a writer is reporting a series of events rather than telling a tale, he or she cannot afford to stop for a moment longer, or so will the reader.


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