Arguably the most common piece of writing advice offered, Show, Not Tell means an author writes action in live scenes rather than in summary or exposition.
What is a live scene?
A live scene depicts blow-by-blow action that happens on the page. The scene can take place in the present or in the past, but the representation of it–the writing–employs the movements, feelings, thoughts, senses and dialogue of and between characters.
In short, a live scene shows what happens, as it happens, rather than telling us what’s going on.
Is it ever okay to tell, not show? Yes!
For instance, if a live scene has been shown on the page, but one character needs to inform another about it, it’s okay to summarize or go to, “He told her what happened by the lake” rather than relay the entire conversation. We’ve seen the scene, so we don’ t need to read a recap.
Let’s look at some illustrative examples, from my pretend novel Bad Sale. Here’s the set-up:
Richard (the farmer who was tricked by a childhood friend into buying bomb making supplies at the hardware store) gets pulled over by police while driving home. The deputy says Richard failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. Richard waits by the road while the deputy takes an inordinately long time to run his license. The deputy also asks Richard where he’s going, what’s in the box in the back of his truck, and if he has a permit for the shotgun in his gun rack. Richard is finally allowed to go with no citation issued, only a warning to drive more carefully.
(^This was all telling, by the way. On the page, it would be written dramatically.)
This is what happens next, in telling:
Richard walked into the kitchen. His wife Jillian was rolling meatballs for dinner. Richard was still unnerved by the long traffic stop. He started to tell Jillian what happened. At first she joked about him speeding, but when she saw his white face, she got upset and asked why the police would be bothering him. He said it had to be about the hardware store. After he said it, he stalked to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. That shocked Jillian, too. Richard never drank in the middle of the day. She kept rolling meatballs, but she watched him drink and wondered if he was telling her the whole truth.
The above is a new development to the story: it advances the plot and presents a potential new conflict in tension between Richard and Jillian. But it is still telling. Do you see the kitchen? Do you see if Jillian shows her surprise? Do you know if Richard can tell she’s suspicious of his story? Do you feel what they feel, see what they see, hear what they hear?
Now let’s try showing:
Richard walked into the kitchen and threw his keys on the table. “You won’t believe what just happened,” he said. “I got pulled over by police.”
“Why, were you speeding again?” Jillian asked. She glanced up from rolling meatballs and did a double take. “Good god, Richard, you’re white as a sheet. What happened?”
“I wasn’t speeding. The deputy said I rolled through the stop sign on Green Street,” he said.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he admitted. He told her about it taking forever to run his license and the questions the deputy asked about the shotgun and the box of baling twine. “Even if I did roll through the damn sign, that was way over the top. He kept me on the side of the road for half an hour.”
He opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. He yanked off the top and threw it into the sink.
“I know it was about the hardware store,” he said. “Again.”
He stood at the window, his back to her. Jillian watched from behind as he chug-a-lugged the beer. She squeezed the meatball in her hand until it began to ooze between her fingers.
Richard never drank during the day. He’d had a couple of speeding tickets, true, but the county deputies didn’t go around harassing citizens–not that she’d ever heard of before.
“Richard,” she said. Paused. “Maybe you should tell me, again, about the hardware store.”
In the show sample, we see Richard is angry because of what he does: throws his keys on the table. Jillian notes his white face, but she also asks if he was speeding again. This reveals a little something about Richard’s driving habits. We see him use a mild expletive, drink a beer in the middle of the day, and turn his back on his wife. Each of these is evidence of his upset.
Likewise, Jillian reveals she knows her husband well enough that he might have rolled through the stop sign, but his white face is unusual, so we know he’s not usually rattled by a traffic stop. She’s surprised the police give him a hard time because that’s not normal for the town–something else we learn. By watching her watch him, we also get to witness her come to the conclusion that maybe Richard’s not telling her everything about the hardware store.
Not only is showing more interesting than telling, it is also more revealing.
Now, remember the question if it’s ever okay to tell? Within the showing example, there are two spots of telling:
~ “Richard never drank during the day….”
This tells us information Jillian knows about Richard. It reveals her thoughts, but if she said, “Richard, you never drink during the day,” that would be awkward, as Jillian would be a Talking Head.
~“He told her about it taking forever to run his license….”
We just saw the scene. We don’t need an account of it from Richard’s mouth, unless he’d change the facts of the traffic stop when he tells his wife about it. That would not be showing, or telling. That would be lying.
Do you know how to recognize when you fall into telling?
Tomorrow’s topic: How to Avoid Talking Heads
6 thoughts on “How To Show, Not Tell”
Okay, here’s my question, Ramona. The telling statement, “He never drank during the day” is coming from Jillian’s POV. How does that alter the validity or power of the tell?
A good question, Susan. The reader would have met Jillian before, as this scene comes well into the story. From what was shown of Jillian before, the reader would have had the opportunity to decide if Jillian is a trustworthy character. If Jillian has shown herself to be close to Richard in previous scenes, it would be logical for the reader to trust this statement as a wife knowing her husband’s habits. If, however, Jillian has been suspicious or inconsistent, the reader might *not* trust this statement. So it boils down to whether or not the reader has developed trust in Jillian.
Great example. I think I get it now. POV still confuses me at times, though.
Jan, POV is indeed tricky. I think it’s one of those things that, once you “get” it, you understand but getting it can be elusive.
…a little like math?? Hahaha