Show don’t Tell Ref: Dennis Jerz http://jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/creative/showing.htm Don't just tell me your brother is funny... show me what he says and does, and let me decide whether I want to laugh. To convince your readers, show, don't just tell them what you want them to know. Writing is emotionally powerful when it engages the reader. Rather than classify and list all the emotions that you felt, use specific details that give the reader a reason to feel the emotions you want to express. I'll never forget how I felt after Fido died. I was miserable. Simply naming the feelings that you experienced (telling your reader what you felt) is not enough to create interest in the reader. You need to find a way to generate, in your reader, the same feelings that you experienced. Is this better? If I live for a thousand years, I'll never forget how utterly and terribly alone I felt after Fido died. I was so miserable that I thought I would die. Months and months went by, and it seemed that every little thing reminded me of him and made me wish things could be different. I don't know whether I am ever going to get over his death. No While the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling -- they don't actually give the reader a reason to love Fido, and to suffer along with the writer. This is better! Whenever puppies in the pet store window distracted me from the serious business of taking him for his walk, Fido growled, his little ears flattened against his scruffy head. Yet he always forgave me. Even after his hearing and sight faded, when he felt the leash click on his collar and smelled fresh air, he still tried to run. He's been dead for three months now. This morning I filled his water bowl all the way to the top, just the way he likes it, before I remembered. The author does not need to tell the reader "I loved Fido and I still haven't come to terms with his death," because the paragraph contains specific details that show the depths of the relationship. Telling or Showing? From the way she behaved in the crowded party, you could tell Sally was attracted to the cute stranger in the black shirt. She tried a few things to get his attention, and eventually she thought she succeeded. Correct! It’s mostly ‘Telling’ The author wastes no time providing the information, but the story is very thin... nothing interesting seems to be happening. Telling or Showing? Bored by the conversation, Sally tossed her hair and laughed. That stranger had been scanning the room, and he noticed her this time. Wait, was that a half smile? Had he just put his hand on his heart? Or was he just brushing something from his shirt? Sally smiled. That shirt looked soft. "He's kind of cute," her room mate giggled. Sally casually looked away. "Oh, I don't know," she said, twirling a curl. She let her eyes rest on the curtains, the food, a random face in the crowd, and found another excuse to laugh. Carefully seating herself, she crossed her legs the way she and her girlfriends had practiced at school. That ought to do it, she thought. Correct! It’s mostly ‘Showing’ The reader is left to figure out what's going on... more engaging for a story. There is tension, and even a bit of character development. The original version tells you a few specific but isolated details, but why should the reader care what colour the stranger's shirt is? Without coming right out and saying "Sally was attracted to the man," the revision shows a series of different details that come together to form a pattern, but the author does not come right out and announce what the pattern means. For example, Sally tries to catch the stranger's attention; she notices his shirt when he seems to put his hand on his heart; she imagines his shirt would be soft. Since she's obviously thinking about touching it, we can INFER what else she might be thinking. Is Sally a sultry temptress, ready to ensnare another hapless man? Or is she a geeky secondary school pupil about to embarrass herself (yet again) at an elegant party? The revision doesn't come right out and describe exactly what Sally does with her legs, but all we need to know is that the gesture is meant to be attractive. Because the author has not come right out and told us, we can only imagine… and this is what keeps us reading. Marty Wood from the University of Wisconsin says: “A writer should show specific details that enable the reader to reach a particular conclusion.” So… if the author connects all the dots and then announces the conclusion for the benefit of the reader, the writing is less engaging, e.g. show smoke, and let the reader infer fire. I was so thrilled that I beat the football captain in a chess game that I made a fool of myself. I'll never live that down. As you now know, this is straight telling. We know the protagonist makes a fool of himself , but we don't feel embarrassed for him, because we don't see any of this foolish behaviour ourselves. My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was pumping. When I finally beat that big bully of a football captain in a chess game, I jumped around like an idiot, taunting him and laughing at him in front of the whole school. Arrogance and geekiness are not a combination that leads to social success. Now, while the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling, they don't actually show anything important. We still don't get the chance to see the behaviour and judge for ourselves whether it is foolish. "Your bulging muscles are useless against my superior intellect!" I laughed, as the conquered football captain and the whole cafeteria stared. "I have captured your queen, and in three moves, I shall utterly destroy your king's little white plastic arse! Hah!“ The completely over-the-top content of the quoted speech communicates the protagonist's emotional state as well as his arrogance; the author does not have to come out and tell us that this behaviour is idiotic, because there are enough details that we can come to that conclusion ourselves. All the kids knew that Lucy was the meanest kid in the class. She was prissy and cute; she wore bows in her hair and shiny black shoes, and she thought that meant she could get away with anything. She never exactly scared me, but for some reason she would always go out of her way to torment me. I wasn't one of the "cool" kids, and the few kids I knew were just the girls I played chess with at lunch time, they weren't really friends. Plus, I was clumsy. So I was a good target. I was so miserable and lonely, I could hardly face going to class each day. That little girl made my life a living hell. When she saw me, she stopped; her ponytail bobbed threateningly, and her eyes tracked me across the gym. When the bell rang, I clutched my chess set and dashed to freedom, eager to win the daily tournament of outcasts. Of course, I tripped in front of the whole class. Tennis shoes and sandals stepped around me and over me as I scrambled after pawns and bishops. And there was Lucy, waiting for me to notice her. She smiled, then lifted her shiny patent-leather shoe, and slowly ground my white queen into the pavement. Both passages make the same point: Lucy is mean. In the first passage, the author just expects us to believe him: "Lucy was the meanest kid in the class." In the second passage, we read a detailed account of Lucy's behaviour (she has a habit of going "after" the protagonist; she waits until she has the protagonist's attention before crushing his queen), and we can judge for ourselves. The first passage offers a list of details about what usually or often happens. We learn about what Lucy looks like, and about the protagonist's nerdiness from details in both passages, but once we've finished reading the paragraph on the left, there's nothing left for us to do. There it is... the reader asks: so what? All the kids knew that Lucy was the meanest kid in the class. She was prissy and cute; she wore bows in her hair and shiny black shoes, and she thought that meant she could get away with anything. She never exactly scared me, but for some reason she would always go out of her way to torment me. I wasn't one of the "cool" kids, and the few kids I knew were just the girls I played chess with at lunch time, they weren't really friends. Plus, I was clumsy. So I was a good target. I was so miserable and lonely, I could hardly face going to class each day. That little girl made my life a living hell. The second passage focuses in detail on one specific event. Instead of simply calling himself clumsy, the author shows us one specific occasion when he trips, and brings us down to the ground with him, so that we see what he sees and feel what he feels. The second passage never comes out and says "I didn't have any friends," but the fact that nobody stops to help the protagonist makes us gather that the guy is an unpopular loser. The comment about winning the daily tournament of outcasts is kind of humorous, and kind of sad at the same time. We learn quite a bit about the author in just that one sentence. When she saw me, she stopped; her ponytail bobbed threateningly, and her eyes tracked me across the gym. When the bell rang, I clutched my chess set and dashed to freedom, eager to win the daily tournament of outcasts. Of course, I tripped in front of the whole class. Tennis shoes and sandals stepped around me and over me as I scrambled after pawns and bishops. And there was Lucy, waiting for me to notice her; she smiled, lifted her shiny patent-leather shoe, and slowly, carefully ground my white queen into the pavement. Ultimately, there is no need to call Lucy mean in the second passage, because that concept is conveyed effectively by the surprising detail of the shiny patent-leather shoe crushing the queen. There is no dead wood in the revision. It is packed with details, creating a more vivid emotional picture than the first one. We actually learn something about Lucy. Is something being inferred here? She is not just being mean, she wants the protagonist’s attention, too. Notice that she attacked the queen, of all pieces. Does she consider the chess set to be her competition? He looked at me in a way that wasn't exactly threatening, but still made me uncomfortable. This is just a fancier way of telling the reader a feeling by stating something that happened and spelling out exactly what effect it had on you. What, exactly, did this guy do with his eyes, face, and body that made you uncomfortable? Describe his actions, and show your reader exactly what made you uncomfortable. (Did he waggle his eyebrows at you in a vaguely sensual manner? Did he stare directly at you while taking a gigantic bite out of a chicken wing, so that bits of cartilage crunched in his mouth as he chewed? Did he keep glancing up at a point just above your head, as if something was about to drop on you, and then laugh when you looked up to see for yourself?) Clearly, something must be done about this terrible crisis. The words "clearly," "obviously," or variations ("nobody can doubt that...") are often signs that the writer knows perfectly well that he or she hasn't done a very good job proving the statement that follows. A confident assertion (simply forcefully saying that it's so) is a way of telling. Instead of just announcing that a certain thing is "terrible" or "horrendous" or "the most hideous thing you can possibly imagine" and expecting your reader to believe you, a good writer should present evidence (vivid examples) that lead the reader to conclude, on his or her own, that this thing is terrible (or wonderful, etc.). And finally… But sometimes telling can be a good thing… “I am your father,” said Darth Vader.