Sunday, October 31, 2010

Another View of 'Show, Don't Tell'

Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin

Recently, I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) monthly member meeting in Bellevue. The guest speaker was local book doctor Jason Black (, who gave an excellent presentation on the topic "Show, Don't Tell" Demystified.

He began his presentation by explaining that showing versus telling is a contrast between the meaningful and the mundane. It is acceptable, even necessary, to tell the things that are mundane in your story. For example, you can tell that your characters are meeting for dinner, because that is a mundane detail. You can tell where the characters are after a scene change - they're standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel. You can tell that a character turned on a lamp. But, for those things in a scene that are meaningful, it is better to try to show it. For example, instead of saying "Hubert felt affection for her", you would have Hubert come close and give her a tender hug.

Jason said that showing is the process of manifesting the invisible. The show should cause the reader to draw an inference from it, rather than telling the reader what to conclude. As an example, he displayed a photo of two smiling women at some sort of public event. What can be inferred from the photo? Their teeth were white and straight, thus they may come from an affluent background. They were leaning close, so they must be friends. People in the background wore identical plastic bracelets, so they may be at some paid event. In our written scenes, can we get the reader to draw an inference from what we show? Think about this scene:

Hubert's eyes followed the curvy woman as she sashayed across the restaurant. His wife griped her knife, white knuckled, and stabbed into her steak.

Is Hubert a philanderer? Is their marriage already on the rocks? Will the wife murder him in his sleep? Is the other woman a hooker?

When to show? To cause an inference, to draw attention, to evoke a feeling.

When to tell? At a scene break, jumps in time (i.e. "Three days later ."), to summarize mundane events ("They drove into town").

Jason gave these general steps for adding shows to your scenes during the editing process:
  1. Figure out the meaningful invisible facts in the scene. For example, A hates B, C fears dogs, D drinks too much. These are things you could tell the reader, but they have an invisible quality from the other characters' point of view, versus a lamp or a blue dress, which are obvious and visible.
  2. Find the moments in the scene where these invisible facts come into play.
  3. Determine the visible consequences/manifestations of the invisible facts. A always sneers at B, C cowers when dog approaches, D staggers with drink in hand.
  4. Write down these visible manifestations (the show).
    Other examples of tells:
    • Information dumps and backstory.
    • Some dialog tags, other than said and asked.
    • Adverbs, which tell a manner of action. Better to use stronger verbs.
    • Exclamation points in narration!
    Other things that show:
    • Dialog.
    • Inner monologue (i.e. POV character's first-person thoughts).

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