He Shoots, He Shows!
‘Show’ not ‘tell’ is the mantra of writing. In a previous post, Showing Show and Tell, I’ve discussed it, but it is so central to good story telling and people seem to have so much trouble with it, I think I will do a series on the phenomenon.
Why is ‘show’ important?
Excellent question, even if I do say so myself. Let me give you examples.
Tell: He was livid and Jenny was afraid.
Show: His lips pursed and a hand came banging down on the table. Jenny shivered.
Tell: It was a great game and Andrew was pumped.
Show: Andrew threw the ball in the air and yelled, “We won! Can you believe it?”
On the surface, these might look like relatively minor and even insignificant changes. But the difference is actually quite great. In tell, as you see from the examples, the writer is almost always deciding how the reader should feel. She is, in effect, being told by the writer, trust me, this is how it was.
But when show is used, the reader sees the incident on which the writer had based his conclusion. This allows her to decide how she feels about the events.
Not a big deal in the examples above, I grant you. But what about this example?
A more important example
Tell: Anne was desperate to hide her mistake. After her boss had left for the day, she looked through his desk to find the document. But he returned just as she found it. Quickly, she decided she had to distract him.
Show: “Good night, Anne.”
“Good night, Brad.” Anne watched Brad get on the elevator before she jumped up and headed into his office.
She pulled open the top drawer. There it was. She picked it up.
“What are you doing?” Brad!
She closed the drawer and said slowly, “What do you think I’m doing?”
Okay, is she just stalling for time or is she coming on to him? Presumably, the text following will answer the question but the show example is more compelling because you have put the reader in the situation itself. And even allowed her to engage with the story by wondering what Anne is going to do.
Shows take more effort and thinking
Generally, it is true that showing takes more effort and thinking. You have to go from the easy he was pissed to the more difficult consideration of what someone does or says in that state. How does he look? Does he bang the table or does he hiss his words? Are his eyes blazing or cold?
The added benefit to this approach is you give the reader more on the character. An eyes blazing, table-banging pissed or a hissing, cold pissed, implies two different types.
The good news is that you don’t need to do this with every character, every scene. There will be minor characters who don’t merit big show scenes or events which are not critical to the plot which nevertheless must be covered. These might be good candidates for tell.
I suspect that there may be some discomfort when considering these suggestions, the top one being, “But I want readers to see the story as I intend. I don’t want it to be open to interpretation.”
Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Readers always put their own spin on the reading—which is part of the fun of it. But I suspect that this is not so easily dispensed with so I will do another post, Readers Participate in Your Story.