Showing Show and Tell


Showing Show and Tell

In another post on The Life of Pi, I discussed how the director of that movie gave us a powerful example of the power of show. Let’s look at the uses and effects of ‘show’ and ‘tell.’

‘Tell’ has its uses

Say you are inclined to write something like this:

He listened intently to the orders. He felt his throat tighten at the thought of what Serena told him to do. It was immoral and probably illegal. But he didn’t feel as if he had a choice. He felt as if the walls were closing in.

So, gets across the point that he (let’s call him Matthew) is very unhappy. Efficient way to do it. ‘Tell’ is useful if you need to establish some not very important point in the narrative but which the reader must nevertheless know. But this scene doesn’t seem to be one of these.

The power of show

Let’s rewrite the passage using more ‘show.’

“I can’t do that!” Matthew protested. “Come on, Serena, that’s practically, practically…”

“What, Matthew?” Serena turned the corners of her mouth up but her eyes didn’t change. “Illegal, immoral, unethical, all of the above?”

“I can’t, Serena, I just can’t.” He felt as if the walls were closing in on him.

Serena flipped away his protest. “And yet, you don’t really have a choice, do you?”

See, ‘show’ gives you a much better idea of who the characters are and how they interact. ‘Tell’ is like a semi-transparent screen you put in front of an action you’re observing. You can see but it’s not sharp and clear. ‘Show’ is the screen removed, where you are directly observing what’s going on. And with ‘show,’ the reader can come to his own conclusions about the characters rather than the writer telling how to feel about them.

This distinction is as important in a memoir as it is in fiction. You don’t want to tell your readers what happened; you want them to experience it—‘show’ territory.

Doesn’t ‘show’ take longer?

Yes, it often takes more words for ‘show’ than ‘tell.’ So what? Effectiveness, not efficiency, is what we are after here. The objective for the reader is to live your story not get to its end in record time.

When you want to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects of the character’s life, these are good candidates for ‘show.’ When you want to glide over some things because they’re not germane to your main point but need to be there for the narrative to hang together, ‘tell’ might be useful.

A rule of thumb: If the point you want to establish is important (Sheila really does hate her brother; Matthew is a wimp; Serena has issues), dramatizing it by using ‘show’ is probably a good bet.