Monday 16 February 2015

Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Generally speaking showing is considered a better type of writing than telling, but there are times when neither feels quite right. Fortunately there are a couple of techniques that use neither approach.

Telling is something like “John felt sad” and has the advantage of being short and quick, but it tends to lack emotional engagement. You know what the writer means, you understand the character’s experience, but you don’t necessarily feel it too.

Showing might be something like “John let out a barely audible sigh and a single tear rolled down his cheek” which lets you see what’s happening rather than being told. This, when done right (unlike my horrible example), enables the reader to feel more present and empathetic with the character, but it can take up a lot more space.

But what if you want to create an immediate and visceral effect for the reader without taking up too much room?

In some cases you can avoid this whole quandary by not going shorter but by going a lot longer. The example of showing I used above isn’t actually showing in the true sense, it’s more description than action. I’m showing you the physical manifestation of sadness, and that can elicit an emotional response from a reader in much the same way you might start tearing up when someone next to you starts crying, but for a truer emotional connection you need to show the actual cause of the sadness and let it affect both reader and character simultaneously.

This means you never actually mention sadness because the narrative creates the effect for you. If you spend time with a character, when they learn the child they put up for adoption died many years ago their reaction won’t need to be captured in a long description, you’ll have a reaction of your own. 

However, you won’t always want to write a whole scene to convey the way a character is feeling. If Dave wakes up and his throat feels very dry, you might not want to create a whole scenario leading up to that revelation. But you might still want the reader to be in a similar frame of mind as the character and getting them to share a sensation can help do that.

Simply stating, “Dave woke up feeling incredibly thirsty” will get the idea across but not the feeling. 

A long-winded description of what it feels like to have lips stuck together and a prickly sensation every time you take a gulp isn’t much better.

What helps in situations like this is not to show what the character is experiencing but to use a similar, more concise example. Similes and metaphors work well at quickly getting an idea across to a reader while containing a lot of extra information that doesn’t need to be explicitly stated.

What you have to watch out for is the temptation to use clichés. Dry throats might bring ideas of deserts and cactus to mind. To everyone. Clichés are great at getting ideas across, but terrible at transferring emotions.

It’s not easy, though. Phil’s fist connected with the policeman’s jaw and he went down like a...

Hard not to think of a sack of potatoes. But finding the right visual is fun and can be very satisfying when two separate ideas come together to capture a feeling people instantly recognise.

That’s not so say you can’t overdo it. 

Dave woke with his lips cemented together by dry saliva. He staggered into the kitchen like a newborn foal and filled a glass with water. The first sip went down like a man falling off a cliff and hitting every crag and ledge on the way to the bottom.

It can feel a bit much. Better to simply tell the reader the basics and add one interesting detail rather than a series of odd images that end up distracting from the story rather than adding to it. 

Understanding when to use which approach is key, but comes down to personal preference in a lot of cases.

Telling has no emotional component, but sometimes it’s enough to just say someone sneezed, you don’t have to describe the trajectory of every piece of spittle.

Showing through description, like describing a smile or a raised eyebrow, has a limited capacity for creating emotional reactions in the reader, it’s more useful as a way to help the reader visualise the moment.

Using analogies and similes is a great way to make a quick emotional impact, but clichés reduce it to having the same effect as telling. Also, as with telling, more examples don’t add much. Once they understand what’s happening, more details won’t deepen that understanding.

Showing through action is the best way to build an emotional rapport with the reader but takes time. And it’s highly dependent on how well the reader has bonded with the character. If the hero walks in on his wife in bed with another man at the start of the story, the effect on the reader will be a lot less than if the exact same scene happened later in the book when the reader is a lot more familiar with the character.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's definitely a fine line to walk.

Author R. Mac Wheeler said...

Easier to use these alternatives when the writing is lighter.

Good time for me to come across this...uh...that is...good to always keep this in mind, unless I'm off taking pictures on a Sunday Safari, then it isn't quite as important.

Irreverent internal monologue is my descriptive first choice. *Wink*

dolorah said...

I get frustrated with authors that will start with "his throat felt dry" and then add a long description, and reiterate "his throat was dry". Not overdoing an emotion/description is difficult for some authors to accomplish. Gotta trust your readers to "get it," even when showing through action.

mooderino said...

@Alex - most lines are.

@Mac - if you can capture the right voice and tone i think you can get readers to follow you anywhere.

@dolorah - it's hard without feedback, but that's where critiquing partners come in very useful.

Trisha said...

I tend to be way more wordy than I should be, unless I am writing really fast to get the story down, in which case I can be way too minimalist. You're right that it's difficult to get the balance right.

Unknown said...

I rather events happen and I can interpret how a character reacts based on how I react. It's less intrusive to me.

Peaches D. Ledwidge said...

Good examples. Most times, I deliberately show or tell. I think about who I'm writing for and the purpose.

Unknown said...

That last example cracked me up! I really liked the overall idea though. It's hard to balance telling and showing in an ms and also not use too many analogies. But if writing were easy, everyone would be doing it. Oh wait -- they are.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I don't think I'm very good at the whole "show" thing but I do try.

mooderino said...

@Trisha - when you manage to capture an entire relationship in three of four words I think that's when it hits you how powerful brevity can be, but it's not an easy thing to do.

@Diane - I think so too, but easier said than done. Also easier to give advice than take it (as I can personally attest to).

@Peaches - I try to think about how the reader will most likely respond too.

@Lexa - I admit I do love a really original metaphor, even when it stops me in my tracks and takes me out of the story.

@Mike - most of the time a rollicking story requires no particular technique other than to keep going.

Margo Berendsen said...

Loved this break down!!! I could have used this in my writing journey as I fumbled around trying this description or that... I've sort of figured it out on my own through much trial and error but this was a great confirmation of what I've learned, and a good reminder too.

LD Masterson said...

Now you've got me sitting here trying to decide how I'd write the guy waking up with a bad case of dry mouth.

Great post. Thanks.

Lily Wilson said...

I agree - it is always better to describe the feeling rather than just let readers know about it. But sometimes it is too hard both to create a catchy description and to avoid wordiness.

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