Show and Tell


This August, I’m doing the “Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop” online for the FFnP Chapter of RWA, so it seemed time for blatant promotion and to post tips for this.  The “show don’t tell” advice I understand but it sometimes chaps my hide a bit since telling can be a way useful tool for a writer and if folks are struggling to show everything they don’t get around to leaning how to do strong narrative.  That’s too useful a tool for a writer to ignore.  The way I figure it, these are two things you need in your toolbox–same way a carpenter needs both a screwdriver and a hammer.  Hammers really are great for pounding things home–but there are times you need the finesse of a screwdriver to just tighten things up.  Means a writer needs to learn how to both show and tell–and you need to learn when each of these works best for your story. 

Now, about those tips….

Showing:

  • means convening the character in action and words.
  • takes more words because the goal is to create a picture and feeling in the reader’s mind with only words.
  • takes vivid descriptions that reveal the characters emotions to the reader.
  • requires good visualization by the writer.
  • is strongest when you use as many of the five senses as possible: smell, touch, taste, sight, hearing.
  • is the continual search for how to reveal what your character feels and how that character displays (or doesn’t display) those feelings.

 Telling:

  •  means conveying exact meaning to the reader; it is, literally, telling the reader information.
  •  compresses word count (useful in short stories and a synopsis).
  •  alerts the reader that the information, or the character, is relatively unimportant.
  •  can smooth transition in time, distance, or viewpoint.
  •  can establish a mood or setting when you do not wish to do this in any character’s viewpoint.
  •  is the continual search for fresh ways to give your reader information the reader must have.

To know if you’re telling vs. showing, look for “clue” words that tip you off when you may be telling more than showing, such as was, were, are, to be (as in, The sun was hot.).

If the telling is done in a character’s viewpoint, it is really showing us how a character sees the world.

If dialogue is about plot exposition, it is really telling a plot point to the reader—this is why exposition in dialogue usually falls flat and leaden (use dialogue to show more how a character is feeling).

Use of deep viewpoint allows the reader to ‘discover’ your characters through showing that inner person.

A character’s actions always speak louder to the reader than any thoughts or narrative about that character; actions reveal true character—you can tell a reader a character is brave, but if you show that person acting like a coward the reader will believe the action, not the telling.

To better show a character, give your characters mannerisms (physical and verbal habits) that reveal their inner person.

In general, if you have a character thinking something, put that thought into dialogue. 

Most people respond to any motivating stimulus (something happening) in this order FEELING, BETRAYING ACTION, THOUGHT, DELIBERATE ACTION (GESTURE/SPEECH), so that’s how you want to structure scenes, so that a character feels something, acts on that feeling, then says something.

The main except to the above response order comes when training or instinct kicks in action before all else. 

Less can be more (in both show and tell)–what you leave out is often more important than what you include. (Just don’t be obscure.)

Words and sentences and paragraphs that do not add anything actually detract from what is there–the end result is to weaken the good stuff.

Multiple edits are your friend; it’s not necessary to get everything in one pass.  Make one edit about dialogue, the next edit about punching the narrative (telling), the next edit about adding more showing details, etc..

Showing and telling do not have to be absolutes; use more show than tell in a dramatic scene, or use more tell than show in a transition.  Part of the choice about how much of each you have is your style, and part is the effect you want to have on the reader.

For the rest…well, you’ll just have to take the workshop.

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3 thoughts on “Show and Tell

  1. I just signed up this morning! I’m going on a family vacation in the middle of it–August 6 through the 13th–but hopefully I’ll have wifi at the hotels so I can at least peek in a few times. Can’t wait for the workshop.

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