As part of a little writing project organized by Dee Garretson, I’m participating in a group of writers all discussing the same aspect of writing on the same day. Our topic for today is ye olde favorite: Show vs. Tell.
I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll say again that Tell is not inherently evil. Beginning writers have heard the admonishment to “show, don’t tell” so many times that they think it’s written in stone. It’s important to remember that Tell has its purpose and its place.
Tell can sum up years of quotidienne activities in a paragraph. Each morning for thirty-six years, she brushed her teeth furiously before eating breakfast.
Show allows us to linger over the details of those activities in a way that reveals character motivation. She attacked her teeth and gums with the nylon bristles, scouring away any hint of plaque. She was never satisfied unless the expelled foam was tinted pink against the sink’s porcelain. After brushing, she drank orange juice.
Tell can paint a minor character in a six-word brush-stroke. He was a fat, smelly greaseball.
Show provides us with the ephemera of gesture and body odor that would allow us to identify that minor character in a mid-novel line-up. Dried sweat rings rimed the underarms of his greasy t-shirt, which was stretched taut over his belly and stained with his last three meals.
Which brings me to Twitter. 140 characters to get across the import of what we thought on the bus to work in the morning. 140 characters to sketch out the strangers we share that ride with. Because of the limited space, I find most of my tweets are Tell. There’s simply not enough room to adequately Show. I often tweet about what I see at the gym, but how to convey the mysteries of my fellow gym patrons in 140 characters?
To the two guys at the water fountain beside the track: get a room. #gymtwit
It tells you the rough idea of what I saw–two guys being a bit too intimate with each other while getting a drink in front of me. What I can’t show you in 140 characters is the way the younger man’s pupils went wide with desire as he admired the bent neck of his running buddy. I need more than 140 characters to show you the older man caressing the other runner’s arm, skimming sweat with his blunt fingers, even as he bent his knee to nudge the younger man’s leg, damp, crinkly hair rubbing against blond fuzz.
Often, the choice between Show and Tell is just that pragmatic–what do you have room for? In writing short stories particularly, if you’re shooting for under 2K words, and a scene of showing will push you over, but it’s not a scene that is crucial for the reader to see in detail, you sacrifice.
Conversely, if you’re shooting for 100K word novel and you’re coming up short, you can easily go back and fill in more Show to flesh out your story with sensory detail.
Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis–showing conveys more importance. If we see the bloody toothpaste spat into the sink, it takes on weight. Show to emphasize, Tell to de-emphasize.
Other times, it’s a matter of pacing. Show can make a scene creep like a tortoise on a desert highway, as the narrator lavishes attention on every gesture, every sensation, every play of light on the draperies. Tell can make a scene fly by so quickly we later forget it, with no sensory details to pin it to.
For all these reasons, it’s important to be comfortable and adept at using both Show and Tell. If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right? So be sure you have more than a hammer in your writing toolbox.
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