Show vs Tell! Woo hoo!

2010
04.21

Showing versus telling has been the issue of the week. I have been going back and forth in a healthy debate between two friends and writers, Ryan Wilson and Toff (check out Ryan’s post to catch up on the details).

I am going to hash out what I think telling is, and you, the reader, may watch, laugh, make fun, and eventually, agree.  :)

See, most often show vs. tell is applied to either action or emotion. Rarely is it brought up for description. Why? Why should description get off so easy? Dialog and monologue get a free ride, because the character is actually thinking or speaking the exact text that is written, so it is out of the picture all together. Description, however, should not get away free and clear.

Look at the following example:

“He was tall.”

vs.

“He ducked through the doorway as he entered the room.”

Most would say the first is not telling. Why? Because it is description (in Ryan’s case, it is telling because it is ambiguous). I say it is telling, because the narrator is just telling the reader a fact. To show, is to have action (a point that Toff will kill me later for saying). If there is not action — even invisible action (say, blood pumping) — then you are not watching (which I would assume if you are “showing,” then I need to be “watching”).

If you just tell me, I didn’t see anything.

Let’s look at another example:

“She has blonde hair.”

vs.

“She pulled her blonde hair behind one ear and continued to study.”

In the first sentence, nothing “happens,” so there is nothing to watch (hence, nothing is being shown). In the second sentence, there is something to watch, so we are being shown.

Lastly, a more difficult example:

“I tripped over a man. He was bloody from head to toe.”

vs.

“I tripped over a man who was bloody from head to toe.”

While iffy, the second is not telling. Here’s why.

“I                    kicked         a man.              He                     was                       bloody from head to toe.”

Subject     predicate      object.            Subject      (linking verb)       prepositional phrase (as an adverb)

“I                    kicked        a man      who was bloody from head to toe.”

Subject     predicate      object      prepositional phrase (as an adverb)

In the second sentence, there is action covering the whole sentence. Big difference. That brings me to my first rule of telling: a sentence that has a linking verb, with no other verbs, is telling.

I realize that my English skills are… questionable. If anything here is incorrect (as far as how I broke apart the sentence), please let me know. Additionally, I would love to hear your opinion on the matter. Post up and let’s see what happens!

*P.S. I am quite aware that my opinion is just that, and as I learn, I may decide that this is completely bogus, and my friends are correct.

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2 Responses to “Show vs Tell! Woo hoo!”

  1. roh morgon says:

    Very cool examples of showing vs telling!

    I have yet to really analyze my writing – something I sorely need to do. But it’s gratifying to find that I instinctively already use the description methods you illustrate in your examples. Not all the time, which tells me I need to do it more. But in thinking about my latest short story, I realize that I used it in a number of places.

    I’m enjoying the debate you guys are having. But telling can be just as important as showing – look at the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien or Guy Gavriel Kay. Both authors are complex world builders who would not be able to paint such graphic imagery with their words without a significant amount of telling.

    I think the important thing is to watch for opportunities to sprinkle descriptions and emotions through action and dialog, but only if you can do so without interrupting the flow of the scene.

    “But that’s just my not-to-humble opinion,” she says, her blue-green eyes shining in amusement.

  2. C. Michael Fontes says:

    So true! I also believe that telling has it’s place, and as such, should not be “banned.” That is a post for another day, though. ;)

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