17 March 2012

Show Me

by John M. Floyd

No, I'm not from Missouri. The title of this column refers instead to what readers expect from us, as writers, when they pick up a piece of fiction. They expect--and deserve--a story presented in a way that makes them feel they're actually seeing the characters and the setting and the action. In a perfect world, fictional events would be as vivid and compelling as if the readers were witnessing them firsthand.

Show business

All writers know it's better to show than tell. I once read that being "told" is like hearing a friend describe a movie he's seen; being "shown" is like going to see the movie yourself. I've also heard that when you use action and dialogue, you're showing; when you use description and exposition, you're telling. That reminds me of one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing": Don't start a story with the weather. Good advice, unless maybe someone gets struck by lightning or the only bridge to the mainland gets washed away in the dark and stormy night. Nobody wants to begin a story--especially a mystery/suspense story--with nothing happening, and too much detail or explanatory writing usually means nothing's happening. Whenever possible, both the advancement of the plot and the development of the characters should be accomplished not through description or narrative summary but through the actions of the people in the story.

Example? That night Betty arrived in Chicago would be telling. That night Betty eased her ten-year-old Cadillac into the storm-littered parking lot in south Chicago would be showing.

Don't just TELL me you love me . . .

Is the "showing" version harder to write? Sure it is. According to Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, "It's easier to simply say 'Erma was depressed' than to come up with some original bit of action that shows she's depressed. But if you have her take one bite of her favorite cake and push the rest away (or have her polish off the whole cake), you will have given your readers a far better feel for her depression than you could by simply describing it."

In The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman says, "A writer can spend a page telling us that his protagonist is a crook, or he can show it in one sentence by simply describing him taking a twenty-dollar bill from someone's pocket, and letting the reader judge for himself."

How can we spot "telling" in our own story manuscripts? Longtime editor Sol Stein said the best way to recognize whether a writer is showing or telling is to determine if the passage is "visual." Here's one of the examples featured in Stein on Writing.
Telling: Polly loved to dive in her swimming pool.
Showing: With clumsy jubilance, Polly hurtled her body from the rattling board and surfaced grinning through the kelp of her own hair.

Stein also says, "Tell me, and I'll forget. Show me, and you'll involve me."

The scales of injustice

The trouble with any discussion like this is that it almost always leads to a contradiction between show, don't tell and another rule that is at least as important: write tight. It's a balancing act, and a problem that all writers struggle with--especially, I think, writers of suspense fiction. On the one hand, we want to paint a sharp, clear word-picture of what's happening, and on the other hand we want to keep the narrative compact and tight and focused. It is, however, possible to do both. Even the most visual fiction, if it's good, is written "tight." (Cases in point: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Stephen King's The Stand. Combined, my hardback copies of those novels run more than two thousand pages--but there are very few wasted words.)

I can't help mentioning the current gaggle of Presidential candidates. I find it interesting that while we writers try to use as few words as possible to say as much as possible, politicians use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Maybe there is indeed something to be learned from all those endless (and mindless) campaign speeches.

I'll take my inspiration any way I can get it.


  1. Excellent post, John--you show, not tell, the readers. :)

  2. Thanks, Liz. You are of course too kind, but that's good to hear.

    Something I forgot to mention: I think one of the best at this "showing, not telling" thing was Robert B. Parker. His Spenser and Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels certainly had their critics, but they were always fast-moving, always entertaining, always "visual." (And sometimes featured almost nonstop dialogue, which is a great way to "show.")

  3. I took a songwriting class from Kate Long once and she urged us to include "close-ups" in our songs. A lovely term, meaning to look for the little detail that makes it all real. Showing vs telling.

  4. John, I agree, of course, about showing vs. telling, but I also think we need to be careful not to overdo the details, especially if the moment we're describing isn't especially significant. I know I've been guilty of that. I once had this comment from an agent: "The reader doesn't need directions on how to get out of a car."

  5. YOur agent's comment reminded me of way back in the sixties when Gene Roddenberry was trying to sell Star Trek to a network, which was worried about the need to explain tech language. He replied, approximately, the cowboy doesn't explain the parts of a horse before he saddles up.

  6. Rob, I like that advice on "close-ups." I'll try to remember it.

    Anita, I once heard that too many details about either people OR places can sink your fiction, for several reasons. One of course is that, as you said, sometimes we really don't need that much extra info--it slows things down--and sometimes it's just good to let the reader have the freedom to supply his own details, in his mind. I think it was Stephen King who said description should begin in the writer's imagination but should end up in the reader's.

  7. Herschel Cozine17 March, 2012 15:03

    Good advice, John. I am constantly battling to show and not tell. Sometimes I do both in the same paragraph.

    But like any rule, it is not inviolate. I think of the opening sentence in "Elmer Gantry".
    "Elmer Gantry was drunk." I think in this case telling is more effective than showing in that it is done in four words and gets the reader interested from the start.

  8. That IS a great opening sentence, Herschel--and certainly written "tight" (pun intended). I wonder if some editors would say Sinclair Lewis should've instead "shown" Gantry staggering around, or sleeping it off.

    It's a good thing for all of us that most writing rules can (and should, sometimes) be broken.

  9. Thanks so much fo this, and for the posts!


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