The Writer's Writing Guide: Showing and Telling

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One of the first things most writing teachers will say is, "Show, Don't Tell." It's one of those basic axioms of contemporary writing classes. I don't entirely agree with this, because it presents those concepts as opposites. I prefer to see them as poles on a continuum. This chapter will show you how to move easily along that continuum, and when you'd want to do so.

First, let's break down the distinction between these two terms. Writing that "shows" is writing that is immediate, vivid, specific. Writing that "tells" is writing that summarizes and is less distinct. The examples below will help to clarify these definitions.

Showing and telling operate on the level of both the word and the scene. The first part of this chapter focuses on the level of the word, teaching you how to move from told word to shown word to shown scene.

On The Level of the Word

Here are some examples that move from the most telling end of the continuum to the most showing. Notice how, as we move down the elements of the list, we enter the image more deeply.

Example 1
a. Communication
b. Radio
c. Car radio
d. Hands never touching the steering wheel or brushing the carefully messy hair from his eyes, James lit his cigarette, flipped on the car radio, and put his cool palm on my knee. The music that came on was odd — "What's that?" I said. "Oh, jeez," he said, flipping it off. "My father's Bavarian folk tunes. I wish he'd remember to change the dial before he loaned me his Thunderbird."

Example 2
a. Thing
b. Creature
c. Bird
d. A hawk swoops down from the highest pine to snatch the waddling groundhog up from its stroll home.

Example 3
a. Necessity
b. Food
c. Candy
d. A dusty rectangular box was hidden the top shelf in my uncle's closet. We found it after his funeral, and pulled it down, thinking it full of those index cards he filled out for everyone he fitted in his store: shoe sizes, arch supports. But it wasn't, we saw as we blew years of dust off the lid. It was an old box of salt water taffy — The very box, my father said, snatching it from our hands, that he himself had won at a booth in Asbury Park when he was ten, for shooting a metal duck, and his brother, on the bus home, had somehow "lost" the prize. "I've waited thirty years to eat this taffy," Dad said, breaking the seal on the lid and peering inside.

How do you, as the writer, know when you should stay to the top of the continuum ("communication," "necessity"), and when you should move further down ("car radio," "candy")? This depends, as do all your telling and showing choices, on context. And context falls into four categories: where the authorial eye is focused, who the authorial voice is revealing, what role is being played by the detail, and when in the story the detail is mentioned.

1. Where the authorial eye is focused. This refers to how far the reader is from the object being seen — to actual physical distance. If we have the reader on a porch swing, where our two lovers are speaking softly in the morning light, and then a motion appears on the lawn, we can make our word choice based on how physically close the lovers are to the motion on the lawn. If the lawn is huge (maybe they live on an estate, and the lawn stretches down a terraced garden to the horizon), and the motion appears in the distance, then they — and hence the author — will have to show the detail on the most surface level. "Cat." Maybe even "creature." If, however, the lawn is only a suburban quarter acre, or if the motion is right at the foot of the porch, chances are they (and you) would move more toward showing, saying "calico cat," or maybe "one-eyed calico cat," or maybe, "one-eyed calico cat licking its bloody paws as it stared vacantly at us."

2. Who the authorial voice is revealing. This refers to the state of mind through which the reader is seeing the object. Another way to think of this is emotional distance. Let's say the reader is in the point of view of a man who is consumed by feelings of despair because his wife just left him. He is driving aimlessly on his motorcycle, winding down country roads as he relives the moment when he came home and found Tammy in the doorway with her suitcase in her hand. At some point as he is driving, he happens to see a cat sitting along the road. He is too distracted and depressed to care about the details, so if he — and hence the writer — makes note of this cat at all, it will be more on the surface. "A cat sat on the side of the road." The same would be true if our point of view is that of a motorcycle driver who is not in despair and distraction, but instead has an attitude toward cats (and perhaps the world) that is dismissive, or disdainful, or indifferent. A person with such a character, orwho is in such a state, would not pay attention to detail, unless the cat fits into the next two categories.

3. What role is being played by the detail. This refers to the importance of the detail in the narrative. Another way to think of this is narrative relevance. Let's return to our despairing motorcycle driver. As he rounds a bend, he sees a cat. But then the cat darts in front of his wheels — thereby entering the narrative in a significant fashion. So the cat that was merely a "cat along the side of the road" will now become, perhaps, a "black cat leaping," or a "mangy cat bolting." You would want to move down the continuum, from telling (he isn't paying attention), closer to showing (he has to pay attention). This shift might not happen exactly when the cat darts, but possibly when the man sees the animal screaming beneath his wheels, or looks back in horror as he drives on. The same might occur if the cat enters the narrative as a memory trigger. The man sees the cat on the side of the road; he remembers that Tammy used to be a vet's assistant when they were first dating. Thus, the "cat" might become a "tomcat," or a "well-fed Persian" because it is playing a more significant role in the story. (This clearly overlaps with the matter of emotional distance, since the man is no longer emotionally distant from the cat.) But that doesn't mean that every important detail is shown with depth. Whether or not you do that also depends on:

4. When in the story the detail is mentioned. This refers not just to whether we are at the beginning, middle, or end, but also to where we are in terms of build-up, suspense, and resolution. Another way to think about this category is narrative tension and tempo. You present details to help you manipulate tension and speed as needed — and, in so doing, manipulate your reader's emotions. So you zero in on your showing at times of little tension and slower tempo, because then you are being laid-back and leisurely enough to accommodate a detailed look, and the reader is relaxed enough to go with the flow. At times of very high tension and frenetic tempo, however, you might well not want to zero in, because the reader is so excited that she just wants to barrel along.

There is, of course an exception: at times of high tension, if you want to draw out a moment in the middle of your frenzy, you should zero in on your details. This will compel the reader to sustain her excitement over a longer period of time. Say the motorcyclist runs over the cat, and the impact causes him to hurtle over his handlebars. He knows he's going to die when he hits the pavement, and as he's tumbling in the air, you decide to interrupt the rapid speed of the scene to bring us a moment of contemplation, thus allowing us to hold onto the tension for a longer period. So perhaps as he is somersaulting through the air, the man sees the cat wriggling out from the wreckage — and really sees it in deep detail, as if time is slowing down. Maybe he feels sad for the cat, or thinks about himself wriggling out of his fate, or sees in the cat's struggle a metaphor for his lousy life, or the difficulties of humanity. Thus, you would use the deep detail to deliver a moment of epiphany at a time of high tension. If, however, you are galloping along with high tension and quick tempo, and you don't want to put us on a plateau — if instead you want to keep increasing our tension without any moments when it would remain stable, but highly pitched — then keep your details more on the surface.

Scenes

I once had a friend who was a very poor storyteller. He would go to a party, and the next day say, "We had an awful time at the party." I'd say, "Why?" and he'd say, "People weren't into it." This is not showing me anything. So I'd try, "Tell me about it." And he'd still avoid showing, saying instead, "It was just like — I don't know — not fun." No detail, no characters, no scene. In other words, his idea of a story was summary. In fact, if our imaginary showing-and-telling continuum ran from a scale of one to five, with one as absolute telling and five as absolute showing, that would be a one.

But let's play with his sentence and expand it into a more showing paragraph.

At five degrees Fahrenheit, it was a frigidly cold tailgate party, and instead of clinking their mugs in toasts to the victorious team, the three cheerleaders scuttled away from the rest of the sorority, threw a lit match into a trash can, and huddled over the ensuing flame, each hugging her own shoulders to stay warm.

That is clearly shown. I explored the subject — "We." I explored what kind of party. I explored the awfulness.

But it's still not fully detailed. It's more of a four on our continuum, not a five. Let's go one degree further toward the showing end of the continuum, and show a more vivid scene:

Marcie, Laura, and Alice stood on line for the beer, trying to ignore the bitter wind clawing at their cheeks, trying to quell the chattering of their knees. Marcie got her beer first, but by the time Laura's foam was spilling over the rim, a sheet of white ice was forming on Marcie's drink. "This is bullshit," Marcie said, upending her mug so the solidifying contents dumped out. "I have a better idea." She grabbed Laura by the arm and pulled, Laura tugged on Alice's scarf until Alice said bye to her new girlfriend-to-be, and then the three of them wheeled away from the open trunk of the rusty Datsun and scurried across the parking lot. "Where are we going?" Alice whined with a sniffle. "Have a smoke," Marcie replied. She fished in her pocket and retrieved three Marlboros and a lighter, and as they marched, three abreast, toward some dormitories vaguely in the distance, Marcie tried to light her friends' cigarettes, walking backwards with the lighter held to their lips. "They better not see us smoking," Laura shouted over the gust. "They'll throw us out of Phi Kappa Omega." But she needn't have worried; the lighter couldn't keep its flame. Marcie gave up for a moment, but when they reached a frozen collection of benches on the edge of the lot, she said, "Stop. Stop right here." All three broke stride. Alice said, "I don't want to stop. It's too cold." "Hey, my brother's in construction. I know what to do," Marcie said, and with that she pried the lid off a trash canister, lowered the lighter to some loose newspaper inside, and, cupping her hand, set the sheets aflame. In seconds, the trash can held a glowing fire. The three drew in close, their faces lit and warm. Marcie extracted a burning envelope from the rubbish and held it to the ends of their cigarettes until all three cheerleaders were able to draw in deep. "Look at those idiots back there," Marcie said, exhaling toward the tailgate party. "Pretending it's the Bahamas and all that matters is Joey Alanado's touchdown. When all that really matters is how he's got his arm around that Buffy Billington and not me. God, did that party suck."

That example can give you a picture of a scene that is closer to a five — absolute showing — whereas the initial example, "We had an awful time at the party," can give you an example of utter telling, or a one.

But how did we get from the far end of telling to the far end of showing? There are four handy tools which you can use whenever you want to make that journey:

1. dialogue (not "And then I told him to go home," but actual, quoted dialogue, as in, "I said, 'Go home.'")

2. slowed-down time — Not "I ran home," but "I scrambled across the baseball field, splashing through the enormous mud puddle near third base, my lungs heaving."

3. detail

4. setting

Another way to think of the telling end of the continuum, especially when we're in scene, is that it is summary. It is abstract, fully compressed. And another way to think of the showing end of our continuum is that it is scene. It is vivid, distinct, expansive.

Because summary works in the realm of the abstract and the compressed, it facilitates distance. Scene, because it works with vividness, distinctiveness, and expansiveness, facilitates connection and immediacy. So you might think, Then it's right to stick religiously to Show Don't Tell, because connection and immediacy will compel readers, and distancing won't. However, both summary and scene are vital to the success of a story. It's obvious that a story that is all summary would be unengaging, because it would be so abstract, and the characters would be so indistinct. But a story that is all scene would have its problems as well. It would be unanalytical, unvaried with its tempo, and less able to shape the readers' reactions. You want to compel your reader, certainly, but you also have to recognize that readers need moments of downtime. You want to sculpt your readers' emotional journeys as much as you want to sculpt your narratives and characters. And you will become more effective at doing this if you feel comfortable using the entire continuum.

When would you choose one over the other?

Summary Over Scene

1. Use summary when you want to zip through events which are necessary but uninteresting. Often these occur in transitional moments: "That said, Kiyoko stepped on the gas. The Buick lurched forward, and we drove back to the hotel in silence."

2. Use summary when you want to zip through events which might indeed be interesting but as a result would outshine other matters that are, given the needs of your story, more important. The prodigal son comes home. Dad is in the middle of embracing his long-lost boy when the cook comes in to announce the meal. Although the menu might be interesting, it will distract us from the intensity of Dad and the son. The choice of summary or scene is a choice of prioritizing; that which we summarize almost by definition becomes less important, even if it is inherently interesting.

3. Use summary if you have had too many revelatory moments, or emotional scenes, in a row, and need to give the reader an intellectual and/or emotional break. Maybe you've just had several scenes which showed in vivid detail the combative relationship of a courting couple. Then we can have: "The honeymoon was just as bad. The usual number of fights. She couldn't wait for it to end." And then move to the next scene.

Scene Over Summary

1. Use scene when you are at a focal moment in your story, an event which is one of the major stepping stones of your narrative.

2. Use scene when you want to coax us into a new emotional state than the one we have already been feeling.

3. Use scene to reinforce all that which you tell us through summary. That is, you might summarize the way a character behaves, but until we see him in action, you risk that your telling might not stick.

You make your choice between scene and summary by figuring out the content of what you are planning to say, and then balancing it against the function of what you need to accomplish at this time in your story. Function can include transition, prioritizing, shaping readers' emotions, narrative clarity, and reinforcement. Certainly, content is important, but it's just as important to keep function in mind.

Between Telling and Showing

When we start at summary and begin creeping toward scene, we will find on the way at least two intermediate possibilities, somewhere between 2 and 4 on our continuum. Both include detail, and both feel as if they are shown. But the first is used more as a transition between summary and scene, and the second is used more as an illustration of summary with scene.

1. Habitual action

When we think of "scene," we think of a specific incident in time. The first day of college. The morning of our mother's remarriage. The final exam in Chemistry 101. However, somewhere between summary and scene is habitual action. This is a generalized, rather than a specific, scene. So instead of a scene about the first day of college, here's habitual action about every day in college:

I would get up at 5:30, when my roommate's alarm clock shrieked. While she went out for her dawn jog, I would curl up beneath my blankets, listening to the couple next door having sex. By eight I'd be dressed and down at the dining hall, but I could never eat a meal; the smell of eggs always made me feel queasy. The guy who checked my meal ticket would catch my eye across the room, and stick his finger down his throat in a lurid pantomime of nausea. I'd get up from the table then, and go to class early, seeming conscientious, but in actuality depressed.

Clearly, this is not giving us a single, specific incident, but an everyday routine. Habitual action announces itself by way of several key words. "We always..." "I used to..." "Every summer he..." "Often she..." But the best clue is the repeated use of the auxiliary verb "would."

On Sundays, we used to walk to the church at nine fifty-four sharp. We would pass the mayor sleeping in his porch wicker chair, and the guys at the gas station wiping the windshields. Then at ten oh five we would let ourselves in the back of the church, just late enough to miss collection, but not so late that anyone could say we didn't show up.

Habitual action is usually employed in transitional passages. They can introduce us to a general moment in time (such as the Sunday churchgoing above), and deliver exposition about the routine and characters that were part of that moment. Once that has been accomplished, habitual action tends to shift into absolute scene. A transition will be used such as, "But the Sunday of my tenth birthday was different." Or "And then one Sunday morning it all changed." This is because habitual action is not story (see the Mistakes chapter for more on this), and so needs a transition to get to story. Story is not a recounting of the routine, the predictable. Story is a recounting of the unexpected, the different, the change. Habitual action can convey us through the routine until we reach the change in the routine — the moment when "we always did" becomes "until this happened," and so the general becomes specific.

Habitual action is a summary form of scene. It isn't absolute scene, and can't, on its own, carry an entire story. But it can ease us from utter summary into absolute scene.

2. Embedded moments.

Whereas habitual action was a summary form of scene, embedded moments are more a scene form of summary. Let's say we're cruising along on a summary. Given the expositional demands of this story, and where we are in the story, we need to continue using summary for awhile. But we also know that our readers will perk up at scene — and we know that we need to use scene to reinforce what we're telling. However, we don't feel we should switch from our ongoing summary into whole scenes.

The solution is embedded moments. These are detailed glimpses — perhaps of specific incidents, perhaps of habitual incidents — which are embedded within summary. Such as:

Mr. Penderpock lived down the road from us when I was four, in a converted hen house in the back of his family's abandoned farm. He had hair so white it was almost blue, and eyebrows thick as rabbits' feet, and a temper that had the whole town reading the real estate pages for the next county. He'd shake his fists in the window whenever I ran through his pastures. And whenever he felt he'd been crossed by the grown-ups, he'd pour borax on their crops, or siphon gas from their tractors. Once, he got really mad at Miss Rhonda McDonald for her not saying good morning when he was in town buying whiskey. That night, he crept out to her daddy's pig sty and climbed inside and sliced off their testicles. He was a nasty man, and no one liked him. I hid in bushes when I saw him coming.

In that example, the mention of the temper is supported by four embedded moments: three habitual (the fist shaking, the borax, and the tractors), one specific (the pig testicles). These moments give the reader a chance to sit up and see, and so the reader believes she is in a scene when, in fact, she is still really in summary.

Embedded moments are summary with spice, a way to dazzle up your telling with some show. They are also a way to reinforce what you have told us with a little bit of showing.

For a chart about showing and telling, click here to see a PDF file, or RIGHT click on it to download the file so you can print it out.

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