Showing vs Telling

by Aaron Dennis

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Adennis1111
Posted by ADennis1111
Who among us has not heard such a statement? When writing, it’s important to consider showing versus telling. Don’t tell the reader. Show the reader. Show the reader what? What are we talking about? What difference does it make? Let’s look at the following example:

It was warm out. John was very hot. His clothes were wet with sweat, and some drops of perspiration fell from his face as he stuck his pitchfork in the hay and dumped it in the bed of the blue truck.

When the truck was full, he stuck his pitchfork in the dirt. Then, he walked to the truck’s door. The window was down. He reached in and grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler.

He drank the water to slake his thirst. The cold liquid felt so good running down his throat. Because he had a lot of work to do, he quickly secured the cap to the bottle, tossed it willy-nilly inside the truck, and then opened the door to climb in.

He started his old Ford, released the parking brake, and began driving down the bumpy, hard-packed, country road. He made sure to go slow because there were many cows in the vicinity, and John did not want to spook them. Thankful for the breeze that blew in through the opened window, he then turned on the radio. His favorite song was playing, *Blue Suede Shoes*.

The entire example portrays the most basic way to tell a story. Everything has been presented; we know John has been working hard in the heat to shove hay into a blue truck. We know he drives down a country road. We know there are cows, and that he doesn’t want to scare them, and we know that he likes Elvis, but the presentation feels bland, uninspired; it’s like the readers are being kept at arm’s length. Why? All of the writing is technically correct; there are no mistakes.

Picture this scenario: a new movie has come out. You’re dying to see it, but your kid has soccer practice. When you come home, you get a phone call. Your friend tells you they saw the movie, and you’re so envious, you demand your friend tells you the whole movie from start to finish.

Even if your friend breaks down every detail, you won’t see the lights or shadows, you won’t hear the music, or the sounds, or the tones of voice. No matter how great a raconteur your friend is, they can’t possibly provide you the same experience because they can’t possibly show you how Tom Cruise scrunched his face, or bit his lip, or looked off into the distance to provide the emotion, the turmoil, the joy, etc.

Now, I’ll say that when writing a novel, there is absolutely a time and place to tell rather than show, but for the most part, the narrative must be shown to the readers. In fact, readers must not even be aware that they are reading words off a page. Let’s take a look at the above story again, but this time it is presented in an effort to show rather than tell.

There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as John slung hay into the bed of a blue truck. Soaked from head-to-toe and dripping sweat, the farmhand grimaced due to his fresh sunburns. Puffing, he stuck steel prongs into the dirt, leaned his head against the pitchfork’s shaft, and took a breath; the bed was finally filled.

Choking saliva down his dried throat, he rounded his Ford, stuck his arm through the opened window, and nabbed a bottle of water from his cooler. Such a refreshing sensation relaxed his worn body when he drank. *Well, ain’t no time to dally*, he thought and tossed the bottle into the passenger seat.

He pulled open the creaky door, paused, and gazed out over the sweltering expanse. A hundred head of Angus nibbled mindlessly at dried grasses. Nodding from the good feeling of another day of hard work, John crawled into the seat, turned on the engine, and listened to his baby purr. After releasing the parking brake, he eased on down the bumpy, hard-packed, country road. Cooling breezes blew in from the window, gently caressing his weatherworn face.

“Now, what’s on the radio?”

He pressed the button, and a chuckle escaped his lips when he heard his favorite tune, *Blue Suede Shoes*. Smiling, he bobbed his head to the beat.

It’s the same exact story. Yes, some new descriptions have been added, but some old ones have been omitted, and that’s only because more was provided in each sentence by presenting the story in a manner called showing. Let’s examine it piece-by-piece:

It was warm out. John was very hot. His clothes were wet with sweat, and some drops of perspiration fell from his face as he stuck his pitchfork in the hay and dumped it in the bed of the blue truck.

Versus:

There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky as John slung hay into the bed of a blue truck.

With just one sentence—while showing rather than telling—the sky, John’s activity, and the truck have all been presented. That allowed the first paragraph to contain new information without becoming wordy.

Soaked from head-to-toe and dripping sweat, the farmhand grimaced due to his fresh sunburns.

Now, we also know just how hot it is, we still know he’s dripping with sweat, but we also get a feeling—that hot, scratchy pain that comes from sunburns. We are being shown John, how hard he is working, and how hot it is. Finally, the third sentence in the showing paragraph:

Puffing, he stuck steel prongs into the dirt, leaned his head against the pitchfork’s shaft, and took a breath; the bed was finally filled.

We also get to see, to experience, how tired John is. He is puffing, he leans against his tool, and the word finally, entails that he has long been working under the sun; obviously, long enough to have endured sunburns.

The next portion:

When the truck was full, he stuck his pitchfork in the dirt. Then, he walked to the truck’s door. The window was down. He reached in and grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler.

Versus:

Choking saliva down his dried throat, he rounded his Ford, stuck his arm through the opened window, and nabbed a bottle of water from his cooler.

Once again, with only a single sentence, we know he’s thirsty, and we get to feel how thirsty; he had to choke down his saliva. We also get to move with him by rounding the truck, and we didn’t have to be told that the window was down, we were shown it was down as well as what John did with the opened window; he reached through it to grab water. Plus, we know the water is cold. It was in a cooler. That single, complex sentence gives us all the information, which then allows more to be shown later in the same paragraph.

Such a refreshing sensation relaxed his worn body when he drank. *Well, ain’t no time to dally*, he thought and tossed the bottle into the passenger seat.

Those two sentences add to the story by showing how John feels from drinking. Next, we’re presented something personal; John’s thought, which has been tagged in order identify the reason for the italicized text at the very beginning of a story; he is thinking that there’s no time to waste, and he thinks with a country colloquialism, and following his thought is an action—tossing the bottle—but showing that it was tossed into the passenger seat shows us more than we were shown by being told he had tossed it willy-nilly. The word tossed generally implies that it was done without a care, and the passenger seat brings us a more detailed picture of the truck. Lastly, the fact that he thought with a country colloquialism made you hear his voice with a southern twang, didn’t it?

The next portion of the original text was the following:

He drank the water to slake his thirst. The cold liquid felt so good running down his throat. Because he had a lot of work to do, he quickly secured the cap to the bottle, tossed it willy-nilly inside the truck, and then opened the door to climb in.

Versus:

He pulled open the creaky door, paused, and gazed out over the sweltering expanse. A hundred head of Angus nibbled mindlessly at dried grasses. Nodding from the good feeling of another day of hard work, John crawled into the seat, turned on the engine, and listened to his baby purr. After releasing the parking brake, he eased on down the bumpy, hard-packed, country road. Cooling breezes blew in from the window, gently caressing his weatherworn face.

The first two sentences in the told version are no longer important because the previous shown example eliminated the need to describe the water and the fact that he is busy, so we cut out the guff, and instead, we jump right into the action. This means that rather than just opening the door and climbing in, readers have chance to glean more information from a single paragraph; the door squeaked when he opened it, he then paused to gaze, which makes John into a more realistic character, and we are reminded of the heat by the word sweltering. On top of all that, we then get to experience the country and the cattle, and what the cattle are doing.

Certainly, all of that information could have been told in the original example, but that results in a slowed progression; too many blatant descriptions start to bog down the pace of a story. It gets wordy. Readers get bored, and they have little desire to memorize cold facts. That’s why it’s important to show the story to readers as it progresses. Otherwise, they have to stop to memorize sentence, after sentence, after sentence of details. Finally, we get to start the truck, hear the engine purr, and feel the breezes all in that one, shown paragraph rather than having the next portion of the told text:

He started his old Ford, released the parking brake, and began driving down the bumpy, hard-packed, country road. He made sure to go slow because there were many cows in the vicinity, and John did not want to spook them. Thankful for the breeze that blew in through the opened window, he then turned on the radio. His favorite song was playing, *Blue Suede Shoes*.

Versus:

“Now, what’s on the radio?”

He pressed the button, and a chuckle escaped his lips when he heard his favorite tune, *Blue Suede Shoes*. Smiling, he bobbed his head to the beat.

First of all, you heard his country twang again, didn’t you? Now, most of the previous paragraph has become obsolete, and so it gets cut to pave the way for less words and more story. There is no need to tell that there are many cows; it was presented in the paragraph preceding this one. There’s no need to tell that John doesn’t want to spook the cows, because the words eased on down were introduced; readers know he’s going slow, though they may not know it’s because he doesn’t want to spook cows, it isn’t really important; we already get the feeling that John is a good, hardworking guy. Finally, we get a piece of dialogue to set up the action of turning the radio on.

People like characters who speak; it’s real. Internal thoughts are great, but too many bog down the story. A tiny piece of dialogue, even if it’s to a character’s self, gives the reader’s mind a break, and it can be used to orchestrate a scene; in this case, John doesn’t simply turn the radio on, he also has a reaction, which makes him a three-dimensional character by chuckling. Moreover, he bobs his head to the beat of his favorite song.

This is about the simplest way to introduce the concepts of showing and telling, and we definitely see the benefit of showing, but is it the right thing to implement all the time?

No. There are certainly times during the prose of a novel when things must be told.

Let’s imagine we’ve just read through the entire, first chapter of John’s hard day on the farm, and it has ended with the example provided above. He is now driving home, listening to the radio. Is it necessary to show the next thirty minutes of him driving home?

Well, that depends; is there some story there? Will there be action, or character development, or world building? If the answer to any of those questions is yes then the writer must show more of the story either by prolonging the chapter or starting with the appropriate information in the next chapter.

If the answer to all of those questions is no, and the writer wishes to end the chapter because nothing more is prevalent then the chapter can end, but the writer must also consider how to open the next chapter. We will assume that nothing important happened, that it was the end of the day on a Friday, and that John’s ride home, his evening, and his entire weekend are of no consequence.

To open a new chapter, it may become necessary to tell of what happened over the course of an hour, a day, a week, or even months. Let’s look at the following:

After that scorcher of a Friday, John had driven home, ate a scant dinner, sipped from a bottle of whiskey, and passed out cold. The following morning’s hangover was nothing new; he had fallen on hard times, and the bottle was as good an answer as any. The question was how to deal with the death of Lisa, his wife of thirty years. The loving couple used to spend their weekends with their children and grandchildren, but this last weekend was spent in a haze of hooch, micro-waved meals, and bad television.

Here, the chapter has been set. The story can now continue, however, the information provided was told to the readers, not shown, so there is a time to tell, but it should be brief, it should be used to either set a scene, recapitulate a scene from the past, or perhaps just gloss over unimportant details, which may be required in order to set up something else later in the story. As always, what’s important to keep in mind is what you want your audience to know, feel, and think, so you must figure out how best to do that, but that also entails familiarizing yourself with real editing versus simple proofing.

Proofing is just reading through a written work to pick out mistakes such as incorrect homonyms, redundant words, or poor punctuation. There is a time to proof, and there is a reason to hire someone to proof your work. Remember, the mind will see what it expects to see, and that’s why when you return to your story after two months of abandonment, you will find numerous mistakes you glossed over.

You can also save yourself the hassle and hire an editor. Don't forget to visit my site www.storiesbydennis.com for more information. Thanks.



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