Writing Tips: Show and Tell
Time for show and tell! I hope everyone brought their favorite toys or adventures to share with the class!
OK, well, maybe we’re not doing that kind of show and tell, but hey I thought it was a good opener.
The differences between showing and telling with writing are summarized in the basic form of their words. Showing, ultimately, means that you are presenting something, in detail, to someone else, in order to convey a certain message, story, innovation, etc. They can see it, feel it, and come up with their own idea of what your presenting.
With telling, you are summarizing the events, the product, or whatever else, to be conveyed within the mind of someone else, and recreated as it’s reinterpreted. The people being told only get one side of the information, leaving them to count on the details provided to them. But that doesn’t mean they don’t interpret it their own way. Most often, the subject who’s told this information innately includes his or her own bias and experience into the mix, allowing slight changes to appear in the story that go unnoticed. With telling, you allow more of the experiences of another to enter into the context, skewing the true view of what’s being presented.
Thinking about the concept of showing and telling in this way is helpful. It allows us to grasp some control over a concept that can be quite complex, and sometimes overwhelming. The funny thing about writing is, with all the rules we have to follow grammatically, there are no real rules when it comes to how much you show and how much you tell. Much like everything else I’ve covered, it’s subjective, meaning the answer lies within the work and within the person perceiving it. For a new writer (and let’s face it, don’t we all still feel new, at least once in a while?) this is an incredibly tough feat, considering they may have never been read before, or they may have never finished a complete work before. Whatever the reason, figuring out the ratio can be difficult.
The rule of thumb that I hear most often: it’s best to show rather than tell. I can agree with that…mostly. Showing a situation in your story is awesome. The reader feels like they are a by-standing witness, they can feel, see, hear, and smell the atmosphere of the world you created. They get to make their own opinions about things, they get to see every factor, and they get to essentially be inside of that world. Sometimes they’ll see things that the writer themselves didn’t get the opportunity too, which is where the world enters reality.
But, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. I made the mistake when I first started writing fiction, of always trying to show. That not only created entirely boring scenes, but it was also strenuous to try and move each scene to the next, especially with the mindset that everything need be shown. I mean, I wanted to fill in each point of time so that the readers had no question what he was doing in those gaps, and I wanted them to see it. It meant that I had to try and fill holes, and imagine, in perfect detail, each moment of my character’s day. Even the moments I didn’t want to think about.
The best part about reading is you get into the character’s life. You get into their mind, and you get to see a world through the eyes of someone else, which is a surreal feeling when it’a done right. It’s part of what drives me to read. If I find a book where I really feel as if I’m inside, there’s a good, deep feeling that comes with it, pulling me in. It’s a difficult feeling to describe, but I’m confident those reading this will know what I mean.
But if you include every detail of your character’s existence, you’re not only going to bore yourself, but also your audience. Those little things are easily told, and though they have their own awkward or special moments, they don’t always need to be shown. They can be told, and if told right can bring about a similar feeling to the idea of showing.
So what’s the balance? How does one know what to tell, and what to show?
It’s quite simple, really. If the event moves the story along, or any sub-plot, then it needs to be shown. If it is entertaining, reveals pieces of the characters otherwise unknown, or if it’s something that will strongly resonate with your audience, then you should show it.
Things you don’t need to show are the obvious mundane things, such as your character eating breakfast, taking his morning dump, or driving to pick up his coffee. Tell these things, and tell the unique parts of them, while summarizing the basic points. This way you don’t miss anything in a character’s life, and though you may not show those points in time, your still providing information for the time that has past.
You also don’t need to show all of your characters relationships, their associates, or anything alike, if they are not relevant to the story. You can mention them, and if you do, make sure you say something unique about them so it still stands out as entertaining (this also gives you options for future use of the character if necessary). Showing all of the people in your main character’s life, is not good. Every person knows a ton of different people, and if you fill the story with all your main character’s friends or acquaintances, it begins to dilute the pull the worlds of literature have on our minds.
Focus on what is important, with people, settings, and the story, and leave out any filler. Tell what’s boring, and show what’s important to the story. It’s really as simple as that.
If you’re telling, keep it entertaining and throw some of life’s own common trials into the mix, using both your own experiences and the experiences of people you know. Keep it short and simple, so your reader can enjoy it as a bit of relief, whether comedic or not, before moving back into the real story.
When you’re showing, remember to try and show as much as you can, but don’t overindulge in description. Keep things flowing, while still offering little pieces of description and setting information as the story moves. Keep your reader in that world. Not just in the settings you’re describing, but in the event taking place.
What do you think of showing and telling? When do you think it’s appropriate, and do you tend to show or tell more?
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