Show and Tell: Advice for Writers

‘Show don’t tell’ is advice often given to writers, but it’s a difficult balance to strike. How do you let your readers know what’s happening if you don’t tell them? It really means that you should demonstrate information through plot, dialogue and other literary techniques, rather than stating a series of facts. This is the difference between saying, ‘Roger was angry when he got home,’ and ‘Roger stormed in, slamming the door behind him.’ The former version provides the necessary information, but the latter is arguably more engaging as it illustrates the emotion, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusion.

Showing, rather than telling, can also be instrumental in moving the plot forward. Rather than spending time describing characters, settings and events separately, they could all, for example, be introduced in a section of dialogue. This can show how the characters talk, how they feel about situations and keep the momentum of the story going. For example:

‘Please,’ said Ryan, proffering the spare scooter helmet. ‘’Simportant. Need to talk to you. Ain’t much time left.’

            ‘Why?’ Snapped Clara, ‘You goin’ some place?’

            ‘You and me both,’ murmured Ryan. ‘The right place, ’opefully.’

In this extract from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, we get a sense of the character’s attitudes, accents and relationship. By showing, the author brings the reader right into the moment; a sense of urgency is created in the dialogue. I definitely recommend this book, by the way, it’s a really good read.

There is such a thing, however, as too much showing and not enough telling. In Philip Roth’s Deception, for example, the story is told only through unattributed dialogue. The lack of authorial voice  to explain who is speaking, where they are, their relationships to each other and, frankly, why the reader should care, means that even the kindest reviewers euphemistically labelled it ‘challenging’.

Telling can ensure that key information has been made obvious to the reader. To illustrate this:

Bert White was a frail-looking, weedy, pale-faced boy, fifteen years of age and about four feet nine inches in     height…He was a pitiable spectacle of neglect and wretchedness…

Robert Tressel, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, tells the reader about Bert’s physical appearance and goes on to describe the other characters in similar detail. This helps the reader to get a sense of the character; they can see what the author thinks is important for them to observe. Tressel wrote the novel to draw attention to the problem of poverty; telling allowed him to directly express the state of people he encountered and describe the conditions he experienced truthfully.

Telling can also clarify plot points. If you want the reader to know about something that happened in the past, for example, it might be more straight-forward to just tell them rather than spending time in flashbacks or long reminiscences.

Adopting the mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ will keep your stories dynamic and interesting. Avoiding a distractingly dominant authorial voice allows the reader to become immersed in the world you are creating. Nevertheless, ensure that you convey necessary information and vital plot points; enough, at least, to sign-post your reader towards what you want to show them. Now let’s see if Roger’s calmed down…

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