Show and Tell
Showing and telling are two ways of writing. They mean pretty much what they say. Telling the reader is when the narrator or a character in the story will actually state something in order to get it across to the reader. If you show the reader, you demonstrate something through the action.
Here's a simple example. Telling, first.
Hm. Now for showing...
Greg swept the contents of the desk to the floor in one violent movement.
In both cases, we know Greg is very angry indeed but the second is far better. It's cinematic - it creates a powerful scene in the reader's head - and is more emotionally engaging. The first example let us know Greg was angry. The second let us feel it.
And showing is generally better than telling although telling has its place and can never be - nor should be - entirely avoided. They're also quite happy being used together. We could always have...
Greg was furious. He swept the contents of the desk to the floor in one violent movement.
That may seem redundant but it works fine and even brings a slightly different feel to the event. The showing underlines the telling, making the anger seem stronger.
Using Show and Tell
The rule for story writing is to show rather than tell whenever possible but accepting that telling is a necessary tool that has its place. It is easy to fall into the trap of telling too much, so what follows is a guideline or two.
The physical characteristics of people, places and things can be described through telling without any problems at all. It works because we're used to getting this information directly and instantly through the eyes so if you need to describe
it, quick and direct is the way to go.
The office block towered over them, a wall of bright glass in the morning sun.
However, extra comedy or drama can be gained by describing something indirectly by showing. Take the last line from this lovely extract from Terry Pratchett's "Men at Arms"...
The young Assassin tried to sneer.
"Hah! You're uniform doesn't scare me," he said.
Vimes looked down at his battered breastplate and worn mail.
"You're right," he said. "This is not a scary uniform. Forward Corporal Carrot and Lance-Constable Detritus."
The Assassin was suddenly aware of the light being blocked out.
- Captain Samuel Vimes from "Men at Arms" by Terry Pratchett
Carrot and Detritus are clearly very large, threatening people but there is not one word of description of them, merely the effect of their looming.
Action, too, should be told for the most part. Telling is fast and dramatic and we really don't have much time to do anything else if we want to keep it moving.
The android spun, suddenly, the other way, taking Kate off guard. She managed to lean back from the triple blades but they just caught her, slicing into her cheek. Kate released the android and then pushed it. A human would have fallen but the android found its balance within two steps and turned back into the engagement.
- Kate Calamus from "Chasing the Wind"
Emotion should be shown rather than told as much as possible because, unlike physical appearance and action, we can't see emotion directly. We have to guess from expressions and from actions. You should therefore write the same way.
The Kaite looked at her and then the knife.
"You won't need that," she said and then moved to take her arm. "Here, let me heal-"
"Get off!" the thief snapped, snatching her arm away from her. The movement almost overbalanced her. Her leg throbbed and burned with pain. She steadied herself against the wall.
"I don't need, and I don't want your help," she snarled then. "Just go away."
- Cher Desilva and Kate Calamus from "Change in the Wind"
Another reason to show emotions is that they can be subtle things. People often don't even know what emotions they're feeling. They can be in denial about them or simply too much in the throes of them to be analytical.
"I am not angry!" he shouted.
However, telling can also work with emotions when a character is being analytical. People are capable of recognising their own emotions so you could happily have an internal dialogue which tells the reader about them.
The tears were wet streaks on her face now. It had all gone wrong. Everything was out of her control. She couldn't handle it. She couldn't cope. She'd proven that when she'd assaulted that Agent. Now, she couldn't even get out. She was forced onwards all the time because there was no way back. She'd been panicked and desperate and pushed further in until now, when death was at her heels and there was no escape.
- Cher Desilva from "Chasing the Wind"
Finally, dialogue. Dialogue is, practically by definition, usually telling. That said, it can actually show as well. One of two people lost in a dark labyrinth, taking a random example, can be babbling to the other. This tells us very little but shows us that he's scared. Dialogue can be a very useful way of showing emotion.
Exposition is brute-force telling and usually fairly long and involved. It's when something is explained to the reader (although the comments are, of course, usually directed at another character) - and although you might be better off hinting to the reader or giving him the information in smaller pieces, sometimes exposition is required.
One use is for background information, stuff the characters would know but the reader does not. For example...
There was no hole in the front of Tay's gun. Rather, there was an indent, a perfect mirrored concavity. It glittered with tiny sparks as the pulsed beam of high-intensity microwaves flashed invisibly from the gun. A brief pulse of pure red laserlight followed it, marking the shot for the user.
- "Against the Wind"
If you need this, keep it brief and to the point, and also only mention it when it's important. Explaining how that gun works when it's not being fired would be clumsy indeed. However, you can always show the same information, perhaps by having someone experiencing being shot by such a weapon later.
One trick, used to great effect in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books is simply to not explain this sort of background information, but to drop the reader into the middle of the world and let them pick things up through context. What's a Hold? Well, people live in them and they have stone walls. Presumably a form of fort or castle, then...
The problem with this technique is that you do have to make sure all the context needed is included to be picked up.
The other use for exposition is plot revelation, usually in a conversation. Again, it's often necessary so try to keep it interesting. One of the best things to do is to actually have it a conversation. Other characters should interject, ask questions and point out flaws. The person who's talking can figure things out as they go, guess wrong, correct themselves, think out loud and so on.
"Okay," Daniel said, "but what is the relation between the lagrange point and the beam? Why does it cross through there?"
"Gravity distorts dimensions. All of them, not just time and space. It takes something like a sun or a black hole for it to be noticeable, but any gravity will do it, even that of a pebble. Not that we could ever measure that."
"I'm not sure, but... it has to be connected. It's not passing through there on chance." The Professor drummed his fingers, thinking hard.
"Okay, look," he said, putting his hands together. "Gravity distorts dimensions, so a gravitational lagrange point would be the most stable place possible from a dimensional standpoint."
Daniel turned that last statement around, trying to fit it in.
"What do you mean?"
"At a lagrange point, the dimensions are not distorted in any way. It's stable, clear, flat, whatever."
Daniel shook his head. "How's that relevant?"
The Professor made a sort of frustrated shrug. "I don't know, I don't..." His hands waved around for a second, trying to seize some elusive point.
- Daniel and Chrisson from "The Other Side"
You should always avoid, where ever possible, a straight info dump - a character delivering exposition like a lecturer in a classroom. Like in a classroom, it would have to be really interesting for it to keep the attention of the readers.
I've mentioned this before in relation to comics, but you should definitely try to avoid a lot of exposition at the beginning of stories as there's a risk it'll turn people off. You can get away with it, though, if it's written interestingly. I've done it myself a few times, as has each and every Star Wars movie. However you need to be conscious of the problems and treat it very carefully.
This tutorial has a sequel. There's a third in the set - not showing and not telling - which is complex enough to need a tutorial all by itself. It's not finished just yet, but will be soon. Watch this space...
Got any comments?
Feel free to buzz me. This document will be added to as new things occur to me but I'm always open to suggestions and criticism.