Showing and telling, a middle route
It’s weird. No matter how many of these darn emails I write, I never quite know in advance which ones that are going to get a torrential response, and which ones just a trickle. We weren’t quite at torrential levels last week, but we were certainly healthily full – and a LOT of you spoke about how you’d found yourself gummed up by misleading advice on the showing / telling topic.
So I think it’s worth risking a follow-up here. In particular, I want to suggest a sensible middle path, that’s easy to follow and won’t make you tense up over a perfectly ordinary piece of writing.
Oh, and you’ve probably noticed, but – after a stupid, two-year pandemic brought to an end SINGLEHANDEDLY by this magnificent woman – the York Festival of Writing is back. Yabadabadoo! If you’ve been before, you’ll know exactly why you want to come again. If you’ve not been before, then scurry off and find out more.
Right. I’ll start by recapping from last week. We looked at this pair of examples from Jerry Jenkins:
Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and she shivered.
The great JJ preferred the shown version in every case, but I commented:
Of those two sentences, the first is clearly better. The word “embrace” means “to wrap your arms round someone”, so the second sentence is simply preferring a more cumbersome way of saying the exact same thing …
As for the second clause – well, you could go either way on that one, depending on what the purpose of your sentence was. But it looks like the purpose of the sentence is to connect (A) her awareness that he’s been smoking and (B) her emotional reaction to that knowledge. In which case, the first sentence does the job with economy and elegance. The second sentence actually clouds that understanding by avoiding direct statement.
And, I didn’t say so last week, but one of the troubles with the “Show! Show! Show!” brigade is that it constantly tempts writers into bad writing. Take a look at this pair of sentences (from Reedsy this time). Again, Reedsy prefers the shown version:
Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.
Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath as the wind brushed past the curtain.
Now it’s definitely true that the telling version there just does the job of conveying information more cleanly. The reader needs to know something. So you tell them. Boof, done!
But also: every single part of that showing paragraph is cliché. All of it.
“Gosh! How on earth do I show that Michael is afraid of the dark? I know! Genius! I’ll place him in a classic fear-inducing situation – exiting mother, lights off – then I’ll show a fear response that no one could possibly misunderstand. Let’s have a bit of tensing. Not enough? No. OK, so let’s have Michael huddle. And grip the sheets. And, damn it, let’s have him hold his breath too. That should do it. Except, hmm, maybe we haven’t got into Michael’s head enough? I wonder what specific sounds or thoughts might be troubling him? Hmm. ** thinks really hard, swallows pills, drinks gin ** I know! Gee-Nee-Us! Let’s have wind rustling the curtains. That caps a magnificent paragraph, no? A brilliant telling detail that no one in the History of Literature will have thought of before. By heck, I’m on fire!”
The thing that underlies writing like this is anxiety – induced by a million dumb articles on showing and telling that totally confuse the issue. The result is authors so anxious to ram their point down the reader’s throat, that they end up at the small intestine.
So the main message here is:
Relax. Don’t worry about it.
The second message is:
If it feels natural just to tell the reader something, then tell them. Why stress?
But a third message is that there is an easy middle ground. Very often, we do want to see something more character-specific than the told version might convey. In which case, first tell the reader what you need them to know, then show them the character impact or response.
So for example:
When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared. As she pulled away, she put her fingers to the corner of his mouth and said, ‘Oh, Kevin.’ Her voice was more sad than accusing.
He said, ‘Sandra, I –’ but his intended denials died before they were truly born. [And so on.]
Because you’ve already dealt with the “what’s just happened?” issue clearly and in a sentence, what follows can be subtle and unobvious. It can allow the characters to breathe as fully as they wish, because they don’t have to hurtle round the page trying to show the reader what the underlying issue is – like people trapped in some frantic game of charades, run by a mime-artist pickled in industrial-grade espresso.
Here’s the fear-of-the-dark example, done the same way:
Michael was terribly afraid of the dark, he always had been. As a child, he’d always needed a nightlight. In rural Ohio, powercuts hadn’t been that infrequent and his parents had learned they had to have a lantern on standby, with a candle stout enough to burn the whole night through. Even now, an adult, the first thing Michael considered on seeing any new place to sleep was how to avoid that total blackness. He preferred windows with streetlamps outside, doors that admitted a crack of light from the corridor, alarm clocks whose LED lights blazed bright enough to cast shadows.
Does that feel like showing or telling? It feels like showing, right? But you only get to the later, shown-style content, because of the easy doorway given to you by that opening sentence.
So relax. Tell if you want to. And “tell, then show” is a mantra that’ll work for you any time you want it.