How to Turn Told into Showed
As I showed (sorry about the pun) in a previous post on the difference between show and tell, this is a tricky concept. But as part of your toolbox of skills, you need to be able to turn tell passages into shown ones when you think it’s important to do so. So this post is about practicing this operation.
From ‘told’ to ‘showed’
Let’s take a couple of pieces of tell and convert them.
First example: Luke is a nice guy
Told: Luke is a nice guy. Nobody would disagree with that. He’s a volunteer firefighter, he cuts the grass for Mrs. Blanchard next door, and he’s very active at his community center.
Telling the reader what to think about Luke and then providing proof to back up the statement is still tell. Showing can go any number of ways. Here is one:
Shown: Luke called into the house. “Mrs. B., do you want me to move the big planters?”
Mrs. Blanchard came out of the house, carrying a tray. “Lemonade with lots of lemon, just the way you like it.”
Luke took a big gulp. “Hits the spot. So what about the planters?”
“Oh, you’ve done so much. I hate to ask for anything more.”
Luke laughed. “Hey, I do it for the best lemonade in town.”
You could have shown any of the other actions described in the told sentence. Not only does this scene establish that Luke is a nice guy but we get other useful information: he does this regularly and is modest in that he de-emphasizes his good deed by the last line. Tell can be more efficient but show gives you a richness you often want.
Second example: Nancy is afraid
Told: The noise was eerie. Nancy was afraid but she steeled herself to investigate.
Again, the writer tells the reader how to interpret the environment and what Nancy’s reaction is. It is the writer saying, “Trust me, this is how it was.”
Shown: The floorboard creaked as she stepped on it and Nancy whirled around. Nobody. Her shoulders were coming back to their position when they shot up again. Far in the distance, maybe outside, maybe upstairs, a moan. Nancy strained to hear. Not quite a moan—lower, more like an animal.
She tried to breathe but all that came were short, jagged bursts. She turned to the front door and made a first step towards it when, again, the sound. Upstairs, definitely. She closed her eyes. I can’t! And then stood up straighter. I have to.
See? Because you are describing what is happening rather than summarizing it, the reader can experience the eeriness and fright himself rather than getting it filtered through your interpretation.
Doesn’t show take longer to do?
Yes—both for the writer to write and the reader to reader. So, are we in a race I don’t know about? As I have discussed in other posts, the point is not to get to the end in record time; the point is to create a story which has the reader enthralled all the way there. Show is often a more effective way to achieve that.
By the by, as with many of the things I am discussing, you don’t need to go overboard. Keep show for the bits which are important to your story. You can often get away with tell for the other parts.