How to Tell Whether it’s Being Shown or Told
As I covered in a previous post, Let the Reader Participate in the Story, whether a story is shown or told can make a big difference to the reader’s enjoyment. However, writers often have trouble knowing what mode they’re writing in. So, the post is about telling the difference between show and tell.
Shown or told?
Look at the image at the top of this post. Is the story being shown or told? Obviously what the person is saying is very vivid as the other person can picture it. So that makes it shown, right?
I would say not—one person is telling the story to another other. Shown would be relating it from the point of view (POV) of the woman watching the ship. I think this is telling because the story-teller (blue person on the left) has to infer what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. If told from the protagonist’s POV, the chances of it being shown go up.
This is a deceptively simple concept as I think the example above indicates. I realize that not everyone might agree with my take on it and I accept that opinions can differ on the line between the two concepts. Which just shows you how complex this whole thing is. So, let’s try a couple more examples.
The town has never welcomed strangers. Dunno why. Some say it’s the prairie air. Others think that the townspeople have never gotten over that unfortunate hot air balloon invasion of 1984. But fact remains, the municipality of Dunton Heights is only good for those who were born in it.
Does it surprise you that this is that I consider this a tell passage? It is because the reader is told how to think about the town (i.e. unwelcoming). A way to show this might be a scene when a stranger moves into the town.
It should be noted that tell has its place. If this passage were unimportant information that the reader nevertheless needs to know, it’s a good use of tell. In addition, tell does not preclude the author’s voice coming across.
Ice crunched under Shana’s feet. She closed her eyes against the blowing snow and thought about how difficult everything was. If only she could banish her problems as easily as she could shake off the snowflakes.
Again, perhaps a bit of a surprise as show often uses dialogue. But not necessary. We are being shown what is physically happening around her. Tell would more likely be something like:
Shana loved winter and usually welcomed it. But her problems are not going to melt as easily as a snowfall would.
See, this is pretty tough. The rule of thumb I use: if what I wrote tells the reader what to think about the situation, it’s more likely tell (e.g. the town didn’t welcome strangers). If the writing lets the reader decide what is happening (e.g. ice crunching underfoot suggests winter), then it’s more likely show. But not always. Sorry.