We’ve all heard we need to “show not tell.” And we’ve all listened to both sides of the debate — maybe even taken a side. I’m here to say it’s not a choice. You need both. What is debatable is how you do it.
First, let’s review what we mean by “show” and what we mean by “tell.”
“Show” is scene. Those are the places in the book where characters do things. They talk to each other. Something is usually happening, even if it’s something subtle.
“Shawna stood languidly at the bus stop, her slack body betraying the exhaustion she felt. She struggled to keep her eyes open and so kept them moving up and down the street, watching for the bus, then counting taxis as they passed going in the other direction. ‘Why couldn’t he have sprung for a cab?’ she asked no one in particular.
“‘Men. They can be such cheap wazoos, can’t they?’
“The voice startled Shawna. She’d thought she was alone, but at some point another woman had joined her at the stop. ‘I’m sorry,’ Shawna said. ‘What did you say?'”
You can visualize what’s happening: the figure of a woman fighting to stay away, frustrated to be waiting for a bus when she could have been in a cab. We can hear the woman who’s quietly joined Shawna at the stop.
As I type these subtitles, I can’t help remembering the “Show and Tell” days in elementary school. You showed the class something and told everyone about them. Remember the kid who just showed something, too shy to utter a word about what he or she was holding up (usually in front of the face)? Remember how puzzling that was?
I’m not for a minute saying that you should explain what you’re showing in your novel. Instead, think of each as a necessary half to the whole.
Elizabeth Lyon explains this about the best I’ve seen it done in her book, Writing Subtext: How to craft subtext that develops character, boosts suspense, and reinforces theme. In her “Quick Review of Craft” section, she briefly reminds readers of what we mean by characters, plot, story, theme, and narration. About this last one she writes, “[i]Narration[/i], simply put, includes all forms of ‘telling,’ not to be confused with the word ‘narrative,’ which means ‘the story’. Narration is a whopper category that includes information, description of characters and setting, flashback summaries, thought, and the ‘sad, mad, glad’ emotions as well as the ‘fight, flight, excite’ reactions. You may have heard the writer’s mantra ‘show don’t tell’. Show means plot action and tell means narration. All together, you have produced the narrative of your story, told by narrators — the protagonist, other viewpoint characters, and sometimes the author. When used well, narration adds depth, but when overused, telling tempts the reader to skip portions of your book.”
What she doesn’t say (at least not here) is that when the author is the narrator, that third person narration should still have a voice. It might be pretty straightforward reportage or it could be a voice with unique characteristics, a voice that conveys mood and creates atmosphere. It’s not an active character within the book, but it’s an active element in giving the book its personality, of providing a sense of cohesiveness.
Take a look at these three examples:
Toni Morrison’s opening to Sula:
“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom….”
Tom Robbins’ opening paragraph to Another Roadside Attraction:
“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami. However significant that discovery may be — and there is the possibility that it could alter the destiny of each and every one of us — it is not the incident with which to begin this report.”
Stephen King’s opening for The Shining:
“Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick.
“Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting….”
How can you not be drawn in? These are not scenes. These paragraphs are not “showing” us something. They are narration. They are “telling” us something. Yet each is interesting and compelling. Each captures our interest and urges us to keep reading.
Show and Tell
So you see, it’s not a matter of whether you should show OR tell. It’s a matter of how you will do both: how you will balance the scenes and the narration, the drama and the description.
Combine compelling narration with sense-filled scenes, and you’ll create the illusion necessary for lulling your reader out of their chair and into the world you have created on the page.