Episode 29: Show Vs. Tell
In this episode, we cover how to Show instead of Tell. We look at why the “Show Vs. Tell” battle continues on, how to identify when you are telling, and of course how to show instead. We also give you an exercise to practice with and explain when it is okay to tell (because sometimes it is!)
You can listen to the episode right here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 29 Transcript
Note: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and humans, as such, it may contain errors. Please, double-check the audio file before quoting anything from this page.
00:00 [JT Pledger] Welcome kids! This is episode 29 of the podcast and I am glad you are here! Today we are going to have a little show and tell. Well, in literary terms anyway. We will cover why show is more important than tell when you write and how to identify when you’re doing it wrong. Stick around, we have a lot to cover.
A Little Story
00:45 [JT] Before I started recording this episode I was walking around. The glint of soft moonlight reflected off of the broken shards of oyster shells and cockles. The grains of sand were still warm between my toes, though the foaming tendril of wave remnants that surrounded my ankles sent a shiver up my spine and layered my skin in goose flesh.
01:14 Now, I want to ask you a couple of questions. First, what time of day was it in my little walkabout that I just described to you? If you said nighttime, you are correct. Second question, what kind of shoes was I wearing, if any? If you said that I was barefoot, you are again correct. And finally, Was it hot outside or not?
01:58 You see, the reflecting moonlight off the oyster shells will tell you that it is nighttime. Sand squishing between my toes should tell you that I am barefoot. And having sand still being warm but shivering with goose flesh means it isn’t quite hot anymore.
I Could Have Just Told You
02:24 Now, I could have told you “I went for a walk before recording this episode. It was night time and I was barefoot walking on the beach. I didn’t stay long because it was growing colder.”
02:40 I could have, but then the little movie in your mind wouldn’t have kicked on. You wouldn’t have seen it being nighttime, you wouldn’t have been able to sense the cold water and warm sand.
02:58 In a nutshell, that is what showing does. Instead of telling you what to see, or what is going on, I used my words to express to you the situation, to show you that the moon was out instead of just telling you.
03:21 When you are writing, it is almost always better to show rather than tell. I am sure you have heard this a million times. You’ve probably even said it a few times, too.
03:37 Showing is one of the trickiest aspects of writing. Not because it is difficult to do, but because it is difficult to understand. Once you do understand it, though, it becomes one of the easiest things to do. Do you want to understand? Good, let’s do some teaching.
A Book is Not a Movie
04:00 I often compare writing to movies…books to movies. Besides being my two favorite mediums, they are able to do something that no other art form can do. Namely, they can transport the reader or viewer, into a world of make-believe.
04:24 Books are oftentimes better than the movie for one simple reason: your brain is more powerful than your eyes. Movies do a wonderful job of showing us things we need to see. You don’t need to know that the bad guy is 7-feet tall and hovers over Rocky in the ring. You can see it. When Drago touches gloves in the center of the ring before the first bell, he physically towers over the hopeful underdog.
05:04 A book, though, can do so much more. Instead of just handing you the details and presenting them as fact, you get to use your imagination. Even a set full of the most talented actors known to mankind can’t compare to your imagination.
Let’s See an Example
05:28 Take, for example, the Red Dragon. In the book, the Red Dragon, the Tooth Fairy, is a monstrous man. He ducks and has to turn sideways to enter rooms, When he lifts something heavy the muscles in his back ripple in places most men don’t even have places.
05:58 His strength alone is only rivaled by steam locomotives and his anger, well, not even a real dragon could conjure that much fear.
06:09 In the movie, however, the Tooth Fairy/Red Dragon is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is a fine actor. I have no issues with the man that practices his craft, but Red Dragon, he is not.
06:30 That is what a book can do, you can conjure this image in your mind of what the man must look like. He isn’t a man, in this case, but a monster. Large and hulking, lumbering, mouth breathing, fear-inducing mastadonic beast of a man. The book allows you this freedom to create the perfect villain, his image, his presence.
07:04 A movie takes all of that away from you. You are left with the facts. Everything is shown to you and your mental creativity is stripped away.
07:16 When a book is written with showing as the primary focus, instead of telling, you can imagine. You get enough details to build the basis of the lands, the characters, the settings. Your mind fills in the rest.
We Need a Mental Movie
07:37 When written properly, the mental movie kicks on and goes into high gear. As a reader, you forget you are reading a book, instead, you latch on to the story, almost becoming a part of it. You read faster, longer and are more involved. You forget that you are even flipping pages.
08:00 The books that do this extremely well make you forget you even have a book in your hands. Suddenly, you look up with heavy eyelids, wondering how it got to be 4 in the morning and why the book is finished.
08:15 Showing is a powerful tool and you need to take the time to master it. Let’s do a few practices.
08:26 If you are currently able, get out some paper or open your word processor and we will do a little exercise.
08:35 If you are currently unable to sit and do the practice, come back to this episode when you have the time to complete it.
08:45 Now, first, before you ever write a word down, I want you to imagine I have just built a house. Inside the house is a room just for you. It is brand new, the construction workers just left and have cleaned up. The room is ready for you to move into.
09:09 For the first part of the exercise, I want you to furnish the room. It can be any type of room you would like, a bedroom, an office, a studio, even a bathroom. Your choice. You and I are standing in the middle of the empty room and I have a magical catalog (‘Cause who doesn’t like magic?).
09:34 All you have to do is tell me what piece of furniture or item you want to have in the room and where it goes. Then POOF! The item appears there (It’s radio magic, so just go with it.).
09:49 Now, on your paper or in your word processor, write down what you would tell me. If you want a desk by the window, tell me that. If you want a bathtub next to the outlets (cause you’re a psycho), say so.
After These Messages, We’ll be Right Back
10:07 I suggest you pause the podcast and write down your details of the room then come back and continue on. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
10:20 Now that you have the room built up, we are going to create a little scene with it. You are going to be in this room and a friend of yours is coming over. Your friend has a physical disability. Perhaps their arm is in a cast, or their leg has been amputated. Whatever it is, I need to know about it.
10:45 So write a paragraph or two next, telling me about your friend. I want to know their name, what they look like and what their physical ailment is. Tell me what they are wearing, how tall they are, how skinny or fat.
11:02 Once that is done, I want you to write another paragraph below the rest that tells me everything about the friend that I would need to know to identify them if I crossed paths with them in the supermarket. Do they have any identifiable tattoos? Maybe a giant mole above their left eye? In just a couple of sentences or so, tell me about your friend.
11:30 Once you are all done with those paragraphs, we will move on to the meat of the exercise. Go ahead and pause the podcast again while you write these “friend paragraphs” and come back when you have finished.
Ready to Continue?
11:50 Okay, now that we have the basics down, let’s begin. You should have a page or two written that tells me everything I need to know about the room. This scene will take place in this room. And the friend that will enter the scene. So here is the scene:
12:10 Whatever type of room you have created, you are in the room doing the thing the room is designed for. So, for example, if it is a bedroom, maybe you are sleeping. If it is a bathroom, you might be in there brushing your teeth.
12:29 Suddenly, your friend comes in the door and tries to get you to follow them. It is an emergency! A dog has fallen down the well and your friend needs your help right now.
12:40 The task is to write this scene without telling me anything. The trick is that you are going to use all of the items you placed in the room and you are going to show me your friend. I want the mental movie to kick on in my head as I read your words, I want to be able to see the room and identify your friend without you telling me about them.
I’ll Get You Started
13:09 Show me instead. I will give you a couple of examples to get your juices flowing.
13:16 Instead of telling me there is a brown couch next to an outlet in the office, show me this by having to move a cushion to find the end of the phone charger so you can charge your phone. The white charging cable contrasts against the dark mahogany of the couch cushion as you grab the end of it and plug it into the butt of your phone.
13:42 Your friend enters the room, squeezing their hips through the door frame, an effort that has been repeated on many visits to the office space in the past. The doorknob catches their belt loop as the friend rushes in.
13:59 Alright, you get the idea. If there is a window in the room, don’t tell me there is a window in the room. Show me your friend glancing outside the cracked pane to the well in the back yard.
Pause For The Final Time
14:12 Go ahead and pause the video…the video? Go ahead and pause the podcast one last time as you write this scene. Take your time, do it right. Remember to show instead of tell. When you are done, we will come back and examine what you wrote.
14:41 Alright, now that you are done let’s take a look at your scene. You should have most, if not all, of the items and furniture displayed in your room, you should be in the room doing something when your friend comes in and we should get a good description of them so we can identify them on the street later if needed.
Did You Follow the Rules?
15:07 If you have followed the rules, each of these details should be shown to the reader instead of told to them.
15:18 Now, here is the kicker. Almost none of those examples of showing need to be in this scene. Maybe one or two of them, maybe, but not all of them.
15:32 You see, just because we are writing a book and have this power to control the mental movies in our readers’ heads, it isn’t always needed.
15:45 We have to work our word magic to keep the reader glued to the pages and enthralled in the story. The most crucial aspect of this is to always keep the story moving forward. If you remember in the instructions I told you this was an emergency. The friend rushes in to get your help right now.
Readers Are Forgiving
16:09 As a reader, we don’t mind being told details every now and then to keep the story from stalling out. If we are in the height of an important scene, it doesn’t matter where the couch is positioned. We don’t even need to know there is a couch there.
16:28 Instead, let the reader fill in the blanks they feel are needed. Pick the crucial information to show and then tell the non-critical aspects, or leave them out completely.
16:46 In this instance, we may start by showing some of the room, the steaming water swirling down the drain mixed with toothpaste and spit that you watch, memorized as the bristles massage your gums.
17:00 Just from this, we know we are in a bathroom and you are brushing your teeth. It isn’t important that there also be a toilet and tub, or that the floor mat is teal. It isn’t important because your friend comes rushing in.
Build Excitement, Don’t Take it Away
17:19 Now the scene picks up. The reader needs to know who came in and why? What is this emergency?
17:26 A dialogue will ensue, and you will rush out to rescue the pup in the well. It is okay to tell us this part. As a reader, I don’t need to know about the soggy grass and muddy spots on the way to the well. A puppy is drowning, dammit! Get to the well and rescue him!
17:50 Once you get to the well, we can take a breath again. You can go back to showing mode. You need to get to the well now, though, by God! Unless you trip over the edge of the tub in your haste to exit, I (as a reader) don’t care the tub is even there. It doesn’t move the story forward to know it is there, and I really don’t care. I’m worried about this puppy!
When You Need to Show Vs. Tell
18:21 Showing is important. Showing is critical to the success of your book and landing an agent or publisher. Knowing when to show and when it is acceptable to tell, though, is just as important.
18:39 However, because the concept of showing versus telling can be difficult to grasp, I suggest you write out every detail as you just did. Show everything. Then in one of your editing rounds, you can go through and remove the parts that aren’t important.
19:02 It is easier to see what is and isn’t crucial to the story, or where the story slows down when you show everything instead of telling us about it.
19:13 At that point, you can either delete the whole damn thing or switch, briefly, to telling mode.
19:22 Just make sure you switch back. More show and less tell will make a book better. Practice showing more until you are confident you can do it with ease. Then edit the shit out of your work.
Until Next Week
19:40 I will leave you with that to ponder on until next week. If you want to stop by the site, please do so. I would love to see your scenes in the comments section of this episode. You can find it at podcast.extradraft.com or by clicking the link in the show notes of this podcast.
20:05 Until next week, Have fun; write words.