Tuesday 15 February 2011

Advanced Show, Improved Tell

An old favourite I know, but I will be giving my personal view on this subject, which isn’t the usual back and forth from a bunch of people who don’t know what they’re talking about (this will be just from one person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about).

Because these are common words that get used in other contexts, when specifically referring to the techniques I’ll type them as SHOW and TELL to avoid confusion. Also ACTION refers to people actively doing something, not to car chases and gunfights.

How you tell a story comes down to one basic rule – make it interesting. How you do that is completely open ended and there is no hard and fast rule. If a story is interesting you could write it with crayon on the sole of your shoes and people would be tripping you over to have a read.

SHOW and TELL are just two tools (out of many) to help you make your story as effective as possible. You can use one, or both or neither (I’ll explain the last one later) and as long as you make it interesting, nobody will care which you used.

Like all tool, first you have to learn how to use it, then you need to learn when to use it. How is pretty straightforward, the logic behind each technique is easy to understand (although still difficult to master). Knowing when to use each is a lot harder and something each writer has to work out for themselves, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some obvious guidelines.


When should you SHOW something. Lots of stories are all TELL and are perfectly readable and enjoyable, doesn’t that indicate that there is no real need for SHOW, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, right? Yes. If what you are telling the reader is interesting and stimulating — and by that I mean the information is unusual or humorous or shocking or whatever, then tell away. It doesn’t mean if the information is true. Just because something happened doesn’t make it automatically interesting. (btw the same goes for backstory. If it’s interesting backstory have loads of it if you want. If it’s where the character was born and where they went to school and how the summers were so long when they were a child, then don’t.)

But to illustrate when SHOW becomes an advantageous tool, consider this:
I can fly. Like Superman. I’ve done it many times and it feels great. Do you believe me?

What if I take you outside and I SHOW you? Believe me now?

That’s what SHOW does, it convinces you. Even if it’s an impossible thing for your mind to accept, if I SHOW you, you have no choice but to accept the impossible as possible.

So, the time to use SHOW in a story is when you want to be convincing. And when do you want to do that? Well, when something unbelievable or unlikely or just unconvincing happens (obviously) but also when something happens relating to emotions. What people feel, their tastes and preferences, are difficult to connect with because it is very subjective. Consider this, three people are sat looking upset, crying etc. One has lost a child to cancer, one has found out their significant other has been cheating on them, one is distraught that their football team was beaten in the final. Which is which?

It’s impossible to say, because people react in different ways and anyone who’s seen a shot of the losing crowd after a championship game knows how cheap tears are. It seems a reasonable assumption to suggest that if someone is crying they deserve your sympathy, but that just isn’t true.

If I were to write: Jane was upset because Danny broke up with her... So what? Maybe Jane gets upset every time she scuffs her shoes. I’m not convinced, and what I’m not convinced about is why I should care about Jane’s feeling any more than I would if Danny was upset because his team were knocked out of the cup.

The other place to use SHOW is with the familiar. If you have a scene that’s been done many times before. If Jane wants to one day marry Danny, then showing how that desire manifests itself can take a tired idea and make it fresh. But just SHOWING isn’t going to do that, you have to SHOW it in an interesting way. The fact Jane writes Danny’s name on her school books with hearts around it doesn’t make it any less of a cliché, you still have to SHOW something worth seeing.

So then when should you TELL? When you’re stating a fact or making a fairly reasonable assertion, there’s no need to go on at length about it.

Dave lived on the fifth floor of a twelve storey apartment block.

There’s no action there, just a straightforward statement. You could make it more SHOW but why? If the apartment plays a part in the story later where a chase in the stairwell leads to an unfortunate death, then yes, maybe instead of saying he lived on the fifth floor you could say:
Dave hurried up the five flight of stairs, holding his breath to avoid inhaling the smell of urine etc.

SHOWING him getting home can help put a picture of the stairwell in the reader’s head so it’s already there for the later scene. But if it’s just where he lives, then don’t bother.

When you want to give a description of a setting so the reader has some frame of reference. You could come up with a clever ruse, the character looking for somewhere to put a vase and going from room to room and ‘inadvertently’ giving the reader a guided tour, but, really, who are you kidding?

And sometimes you just need a break from all the rushing about. Variation is always a useful tool, and a moment to breathe can do wonders if it’s on the right place. Of course, knowing where the right place is...

SHOW means ACTION. People doing stuff.
TELL means establishing a situation through description.

Jane is upset — I’m telling you the situation. You are an observer.

Jane has fat tears rolling down her face and snot hanging from her nose — that is not the SHOW version of the story. That is me describing Jane’s condition. I’m still just TELLING you she’s upset.

Description of course has a place in story, it will certainly make the scene more vivid and real, but detailed description is still description. This is an example of what I appear to SHOW you is actually me just telling you, but vividly, which isn’t a bad thing.

In order to SHOW Jane’s emotional state, you have to make her do something, and because that thing would be a Jane-specific thing it will not only make her upset more immediate, it will also tell us something about what kind of girl she is. Plus, if Jane goes to her boyfriend’s house and sets it on fire, you go from observer to accomplice. Always good to get the reader involved.

You want to SHOW something, make sure it involves someone doing something. But that in itself isn’t enough. It has to be an interesting thing you’re SHOWING. Or it has to be an interesting thing you’re TELLING. That’s the most important thing.

Jane loved Danny so much she killed both his parents for him.

Am I TELLING or SHOWING? Both? The incongruous nature of the line above has an effect beyond the simple statement, and its brevity adds to its impact. I could break it down in many different ways to make the event more visceral, put you in the scene, make it more immediate — but what am I trying to achieve? By TELLING you she loved him, I’m actually SHOWING you her true emotional state, which doesn’t have much to do with love.

I mentioned earlier that sometimes you can tell a story with neither SHOW or TELL. You can be saying one thing and creating another completely separate idea in the reader head. This works a bit like Eisenstein’s Montage Theory. So, if I shoot film of a baby crying in a cot and then cut to a shot of a woman springing up in bed, the viewer combines the two to deduce the babies cries woke the mother. But the film of the baby was taken in New York in 1953 and the film of the woman was taken yesterday in London. There’s no reason to connect the two, other than the director put one after the other and let your brain do the rest.

Juxtaposing one idea with another and coming up with a third idea completely independently (or seemingly so) is a very powerful tool. In literature there’s this example:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn

I’m sure you’re familiar with Hemingway’s famous six word story, but the story isn’t in the words. He TELLS you the shoes are for sale, and he TELLS you they were never worn. But he neither TELLS nor SHOWS you the idea he puts in your head that a child died, and nothing is as convincing as what you convince yourself of. Nothing.

My point is, once you get beyond a simplistic view of which is better, SHOW or TELL, you can push it to the level where it only matters what effect you want to achieve, and what is the best tool for that specific effect.

It’s not a question of whether I should just TELL you that Jane loves Danny and then move on to the rest of the story. Or if I should take time to SHOW you that Jane really loves Danny so you can connect to them as characters. The question is why the fuck should anyone give two shits about Jane and Danny?

Simplistic, straightforward then this, then this, then this storytelling is where a lot of stories fall down. Whether you should TELL it quickly so people don’t notice they’ve seen it all before, or you should SHOW it with wonderful prose that paper over the cracks, isn’t really the issue. What you’re really doing is not trying to convince the reader that Jane loves Danny, you’re trying to convince the reader that the story of Jane and Danny’s love is a story worth reading, and the strongest way to do that isn’t SHOW or TELL, it’s to combine the two so at the end of the story the reader suddenly goes, You know, even though she never said it, I think she really loved him...

In Summary:
SHOWING is showing someone doing something. Any emotion can be converted into physical behaviour, and in doing so become more convincing. It still needs to be interesting.

TELLING is describing a situation. Not all situations are worth describing, even if it’s relevant to the story. It still needs to be interesting.

The best way to tell a story convincingly is to let the reader convince themselves.


Twisted said...

"vivid telling" is a great way of describing that particular canard. I like your thinking in this -- I don't completely agree that the Hemingway story is neither shown nor told--that to me is a great example of what showing is about. But the whole show v tell definition debate is so absurd that I don't want to split hairs on what is an excellent reminder of what good storytelling should be.

Paula Martin said...

Fascinating post, mood. I shouldn't have read it so late at night because now my brain will be going over the whole 'show/tell' business. Sometimes I can't even work out in my own writing whether I'm showing or telling.

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