Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

As much as novelists talk about the rule Show, Don't Tell, personally, I think it applies more to the film industry than it does with the publishing industry. That doesn't mean it doesn't have application in both places, but take a look at the scene on the left. In a movie, this an example of telling. The audience is supposed to gather from the dialogue that the boy is bitter against his father. If that works, we might as well leave out the image of the two hugging, since the boy has already told us that they are going to. But as movie goers, we don't want characters telling us through dialogue that they are bitter, or worse, having other characters tell them they are bitter. Instead, we want to see it through the actions of the character. Instead of the characters saying, "my father left when I was young and it made me bitter" we want to see the character looking at a picture of his father and scratching away the face with a pair of scissors. We want the character's wife saying, "your father called" to which the character responds, "I don't want anything to do with that man."

The novelist is at a disadvantage to the movie maker when it comes to showing. Technically, we can't show anything, so we redefine the word show to mean something other than display images to mean something like reveal through action. In a movie you can show that a crowd is large by displaying a wide shot of thousands of people. It only takes a few moments. In a novel it requires more work by the writer to show that the crowd is large. Telling is easy enough. We could say, "there were one hundred thousand people in the crowd that day," but numbers mean very little to readers. We see them and forget what we saw. We need to paint a picture with words that reveals just how large the crowd is. Are there venders moving through crowd? Are police officers milling about to keep the crowd in line? Can we see very well? Are we being bumped constantly by people trying to make their way through?

There are some things that we shouldn't show. It is easy to come up with examples of the difference between showing and telling. The question that is much harder to answer is how to determine when we should show and when we should tell. In For the Love of a Devil, I begin by showing the female character with another man, but I also tell about a previous time when. I felt it necessary for the reader to know that this wasn't the first time she pulled something like this, but the previous incident was outside of the heart of the story. The story is about how a man deals with the woman he loves leaving him, so the previous incident in which she never left didn't seem to fit.

That was a personal choice on my part. Someone else writing the same story may have made a different choice. Is one better than the other? Perhaps, but it is hard to say. As writers, we must find a balance between showing and telling. How well we are able to find that balance will have a greater impact on how well our stories are received than our skill in taking a telling sentence and converting it into a showing sentence.

I ask those of you who may wish to comment, what should be the balance between showing and telling?


Anonymous said...

Show unless it's virtually impossible. Tell the rest of the time.

Narrative is fine in novels. Many classical authors used it with skill and finesse. They told a story and they would begin with narrative: "here's where our story is set..." etc. But unfortunately it's out of style. That leads to novice authors doing info-dumps in first chapters and saying, "But my readers NEED to know something about the characters!"

Timothy Fish said...

Anonymous 1:02,

Lengthy info-dumps are problematic in both the telling and showing style. I suppose I would be more correct in calling it backstory when talking about the showing style. I have seen books, not all by novices, in which the author spent chapter after chapter showing why the character is now the way she is rather than beginning with the part that the reader really wants to read.