When To Show & When To Tell

Standard

It’s traditional at this point to give a list of examples of badly-written tells vs. well-written shows, but that’s cheating. We need to consider real examples of both shows and tells, and figure out what circumstances makes one or the other better. And first we have to have some idea what “showing” and “telling” mean.

One definition is that “showing” means things that could be shown in a movie: bare facts such as setting and events, body language, and facial expressions. “Telling”, respectively, then means describing a character’s thoughts or feelings.

Another interpretation is that “showing” describes things as they happen, while “telling” summarizes them, whether they’re externally-visible events or internal thoughts and feelings. In this view, transitory, sensory feelings are “shows” (“The subway car was hot”), while moods (“Jill had never been so happy”) or attitudes (“The bar was unnaturally quiet. I didn’t like it.”) are tells. Consider this passage from Camus’ The Stranger:

~~~
“A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver.”
~~~

Camus could have written this:

“His knife glinted in the sun. Sweat blinded me. I pulled the trigger.”

The first passage is all internal monologue and descriptions that are symbolic or impressionistic rather than literal. The sun makes no noise, the knife does not gouge into his eyeballs, there is no gust from the sea, the sky does not crack in two, and no sheet of flame pours from the sky. You couldn’t have shown any of that in a movie, so by the first definition above, it’s all telling. But it’s not summarizing anything; rather, it presents a series of sensory impressions that flash by, after which the narrator discovers the gun has fired, almost on its own. So by the second definition it’s all showing.

The first definition is easier to use, but I think the second is more useful.

A possible third definition, which comes to mind now but I don’t want to edit what I’ve already written, is that “showing” gives the reader clues that they must assemble, while “telling” spells out what the author wants the reader to know. Implication outside the initial scope.

There is a technique where you baldly state how a character feels or what a character thinks about something, and that statement can imply things far beyond the scope of what you wrote. If you’ve ever read ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ you might remember how the style is very simplistic, with Christopher (the main character) telling the reader all sorts of things that other writers might try to show instead, like the things that makes him happy, or his favourite foods, or what might make him sad. The thing is, telling here is not an error, because what the writer was trying to portray subtly is not Christopher’s emotions or his interests. The thing the writer was trying to infer here was Christopher’s simplemindedness, and the relationship he has with other people.

By this definition, that is “telling” us individual things about Christopher, but “showing” the big picture of Christopher that we put together from those things.

The usual formula for showing is that a scene is shown, with some told embellishments. For telling, a passage’s or a sentence’s purpose and critical information may be told, and then rounded out by the details shown, or explained by a shown simile or metaphor (“A spurious unity descended on them, as local and temporary as the gleam that inhabits a firefly”, “He was vexed by opposite currents in his blood, then they blended”). Or showing and telling may mingle freely.

Here are some ideas about what showing and telling do differently:

-Showing is more engaging

But this begs the question: More engaging in what way? This is not a useful theory, because I don’t know what “engaging” means, and because it doesn’t tell us when telling is good. We need an explanation that gives us a test for when to show and when to tell.

-Showing gives more specific images

Consider these pairs:

Jenny was happy. / Jenny skipped down the sidewalk.
Ben was embarrassed. / Ben’s face reddened.
Martha reveled in the joy of creation. / Martha hummed a tune as she passed a long strip of red cloth through her sewing machine

Some say that the showing is more specific than telling. But is it? No; it paints a more specific image, but is more ambiguous about abstract emotion and thought. The examples on the right each give us a visual image, but Jenny may skip while bored or restless, Ben may be hot or angry, and Martha may be looking forward to her hot date with some fireman that evening.

-Telling gives more specific thoughts & feelings

Telling is better when you need us to know exactly what a character is thinking. It’s essential when there’s no way to show what they’re thinking. How could you show that character-A missed Character-B? How could you show that Character-C was thinking back to his time in the sanitarium?

Conversely, showing is better if you want a character’s motives or feelings to be ambiguous, as for instance when describing the actions of a suspect in a mystery.

Showing vs. telling is a trade off of being specific about visual imagery (showing) versus internal thoughts and feelings (telling). These two approaches appeal to different types of people. The kind of person who goes to see movies because they have great special effects and doesn’t care about plot or character will prefer stories that show. The kind of person who prefers fiction about ideas and feelings should be more tolerant of stories with a lot of telling.

I don’t know if that’s the case. Harry Potter has more telling than the idea-laden writings of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, or even Lahiri’s, which start most paragraphs with a single told summary and then fill it out with shown details. But certainly action scenes need showing, because action is kinetic and visual. And if the statement that telling is more “engaging” means “has more action scenes” (e.g., “Peter Jackson made The Hobbit more engaging”), then showing is more engaging than telling. But I wouldn’t use the word “engaging” that way myself. I found Tolkien’s Hobbit more engaging.

-Summarizing directs focus


An author could show certain things that you would expect to show. For example one could show a character remaining mute while her friends talked, and failing to grasp the conversation. But we can infer many other things from those bare facts, and wandered down many digressing lines of thought. We might have thought the author meant for certain things in that hypothetical scene to be metaphors for something. Summarizing the conversation tells us that they signify nothing and we should ignore them.

-Showing lets you communicate feelings that we don’t understand

That’s a claim I’ll make with Carson McCullers’ book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. In this book he shows us for three pages what John Singer does, without entering his head and describing his feelings, because Singer does not understand and could not describe his feelings at the time.

We can also use telling to express feelings that aren’t lexicalized, such as “the emotion of wanting something, being ashamed of wanting it, but being unable and to an extent unwilling to give up that want”, or “the admixture of melancholy and nostalgia which happens when you return to a place you haven’t been for a very long time and see the fragments of your past life scattered and decontextualized, familiar yet foreign”.

If you understand what you’re trying to get across well enough to summarize it, then you could tell it, probably in many fewer words. But to do that, you need to analyze that feeling, and you risk getting it wrong, because:

-Telling states an opinion; showing pretends to reserve judgement

This is a point I really want to make here. Good authors deal with things that they don’t entirely understand, and if they tried to summarize them, they’d probably get it wrong. A reader can rarely tell whether a long explanation makes sense or is possible in the real world, but can easily tell when characters act unrealistically. Showing keeps the author honest.

Jorges Luis Borges argues the opposite in his short stories “Funes the Memorious” (a man who remembers so many details about everything that he understands nothing) and “The Immortal”:

[Excerpt from The Immortal]
“I reflected that Argos and I lived our lives in separate universes; I reflected that our perceptions were identical but that Argos combined them differently than I, constructed them from different objects; I reflected that perhaps for him there were no objects, but rather a constant, dizzying play of swift impressions. I imagined a world without memory, without time; I toyed with the possibility of a language that had no nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable adjectives.… I asked Argos how much of the Odyssey he knew. He found using Greek difficult; I had to repeat the question.

Very little, he replied. Less than the meagerest rhapsode. It has been 1100 years since last I wrote it.
… [several pages of detailed show-don’t-tell autobiography intervene]
A year has passed, and I reread these pages. I can attest that they do not stray beyond the bounds of truth, although… I believe I detect a certain falseness. That is due, perhaps, to an overemployment of circumstantial details, a way of writing that I learned from the poets; it is a procedure that infects everything with falseness, since there may be a wealth of details in the event, yet not in memory.”
______________

Borges seems to be saying that telling is less truthful because it presents too many distracting details (and says something similar in “Funes”). I am saying that summarizing—choosing which details to keep and which to throw out—is the main source of falseness. I could argue that the purpose of literature is to pursue arguments that are too complex for humans to reason about logically. Writers who summarize will inevitably get some of it wrong.

-Telling invokes conscious reasoning; showing bypasses it


One might imagine that it would be more difficult to write propaganda using showy language, if it is more honest. This is not the case. Triumph of the Will is imagistic and therefore showy. While showy language does not distort what it presents, the person who chooses what is shown can still control its message. Telling risks being false by making a logical mistake, but it states its opinions explicitly, putting the reader on alert. Showing risks being false by choosing a misrepresentative set of things to show, and can slip lies by the reader more easily because it never gives them a chance to argue.

-Telling gives information; showing makes the reader work for it

Showing the reader pieces of information that they must piece together may be more satisfying to them. Have you read a mystery where the solution comes entirely from one critical piece of information? I hate that. The more different pieces of information that come together to form the solution, the better the mystery.

The theory is that this operates in all forms of fiction, and readers enjoy / are more engaged with stories when they have to work harder to understand them. I think, though, it may be more important that conclusions they draw for themselves are more convincing than ones they are told.

-Showing is masculine / sociopathic; telling is feminine

Stereotypically, women like to talk about feelings, and men do not. Romance novels are overstuffed with long telly monologues. Pornography only shows.

Hemingway seldom talks about his heroes’ feelings. In Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, the narrator tells us that Chili (“chill”) Palmer, the hero, is a man to whom right action is instinctive. He doesn’t dwell on things. When a woman wants to sleep with him, he is neither surprised nor excited, and doesn’t wonder why. He acts in ways that would seem to require planning ahead, yet we never see him plan ahead. He is behaviorally conditioned by life on the streets so that he acts immediately and impulsively in the correct way, whether this is punching or shooting a man at the right time, or leaving the key to a locker full of drug money outside the airport before going in to examine it. A rich internal life would only trip him up. And Leonard uses Chili’s voice as the narrator’s voice regardless of which character’s point-of-view he’s in.

You can see something similar in Camus’ The Stranger, whose main character claims not to have strong feelings, and who is supposed to represent the human condition (but appears to me to deliberately misrepresent it). Camus wrote The Stranger in first person so that we could get inside the narrator’s head and verify that he is unaware of having normal feelings. The story shows the narrator’s actions throughout events that should be charged with emotion (his mother’s death, a sexual romance, a killing). Even with his interior monologue, he has only sensory impressions that he can never translate into the expected emotions.

Anthony Burgess’ narrator in A Clockwork Orange, by contrast, is a different kind of sociopath, one who feels intense emotions, but doesn’t care about the feelings of strangers. His life is ultra-”masculine”: He is a gang leader who thinks only of status, sex, and violence. So his narration is mostly showing, though he sometimes uses adverbs to tell us how much he enjoys “the old ultra-violence”.

-Showing is remote; telling is intimate

This is a generalization of “Showing is masculine”. This could be a reason for the showing in that same scene from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Showing Singer from the outside moves us further away from him, which might be appropriate because of spoiler-ish plot issues. In the excerpt from The Stranger above, the narrator doesn’t “pull the trigger”; he watches his grip close on the revolver, as if from a distance, moving himself outside of his body. Telling, conversely, draws us in closer to a character’s point of view.

-Showing is slow; telling is fast

“Nobody wasted their breath pretending to feel very sad about the Riddles, for they had been most unpopular. Elderly Mr. and Mrs. Riddle had been rich, snobbish, and rude, and their grown-up son, Tom, had been, if anything, worse.”

— J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

In many great novels, things are told mostly when they would be difficult or time-consuming to show. Here we’re learning backstory. Back story is, by definition, not the story, and can usually be summarized.

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