Show vs. Tell

Telling-vs.-ShowingGuest post by Peter Langella

Versus is key.

Most writing books and classes and critiques and seminars will say “show don’t tell,” but I think we can all agree that showing isn’t always possible or appropriate. Some things can be told, and that’s okay. The only stories that are realistically going to show the reader everything are ones told in first person present tense with a limited timeline. Everything else needs to be written in a combination of showing and telling, just not both at the same time, or one immediately after the other.

That’s where versus comes in. Show something or tell something; don’t do both.

Sounds often trigger my thought process. Both music and the spoken word. Even sound effects sometimes. They often help me better understand something I’ve been thinking about. So it came as no surprise that I had a revelation about this topic while I was driving in my car listening to the morning news. I found that the most engaging news – and news reporters – balanced their lead-ins and sound bites with an awesome clarity and precision, while reports I found less interesting were telling me the same things twice, the equivalent of a writer showing and telling the same piece of information.

I’m going to try to come up with a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

Host: Stock markets were up this morning in Hong Kong as Nike and Samsung both made large gains. Joe Smith has more…

Smith: Nike and Samsung each made a splash with new products this week, allowing them to secure large gains in the HKEx index…

The host and feature reporter both said the exact same thing. They just switched the words around a bit. That’s an obvious example, but it’s what I often hear on the radio, and it’s what showing and telling sounds like on the radio.

As opposed to this:

Host: Stock markets were up this morning in Hong Kong as Nike and Samsung both made large gains. Joe Smith has more…

Smith: New products for Nike, like the Lebron Air 9 basketball shoe, got a boost before they even hit the stores this morning in New York. A similar response at Manhattan’s Nike Town flagship store could mean a record quarter for the Oregon-based sporting giant…

Smith now gives details and more information. In this second example, the story is getting moved forward, not laterally. If you’re a radio news listener, pay attention to your favorite reporters. I bet they rarely show and tell. It’s one or the other, always moving forward.

When revising, it’s our job to find these instances of show and tell and ask ourselves which one needs to stay. Show vs. tell. Which one fits the scene or situation?

851629-stench-bad-smellI’ll try a narrative example.

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench was awful. It filled his nostrils with a musky mix of molasses and Pepto-Bismol. It was sickening. His stomach felt nauseated.

That’s showing and telling. Telling the reader it’s awful and sickening, and then giving them details doesn’t work nearly as well as this:

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench stung his nostrils with a musky mix or molasses and Pepto-Bismol. His stomach gurgled and gagged in a nauseated mess.

Or this:

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench was so awful he nearly threw up.

Both examples work. One is shown, the other told, but they each work in their own way, depending on what scene they’re part of. They most definitely work better than the show and tell passages. Those passages don’t let the reader do anything. By showing and telling, we take all of the fun away from the reader. If we say something is simply awful, we need to allow the reader to decide what awful swells like. If we show them something’s awful, we don’t need to tell them it’s awful because they’ll already know.

Use showing to add power, emotion, and resonance to scenes. Use telling to get readers through necessary time jumps and story-leaps. Try to use both effectively and in balance with one another.

Versus not and.

Show vs. Tell.

Peter LangellaPeter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Other posts by Peter:

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