Show Don’t Tell

People often use the phrase “Show don’t tell” when talking about writing.

An example of telling might be “She was poisoned.”

An example of showing might be “She turned pail, and her hand shook as she tried to gain her balance by grabbing onto the back of a chair. She swayed and collapsed. The doctor at the scene checked her pulse and said “There’s nothing I can do, she’s dead.”

People argue that the first sentence is boring and the second paragraph is better story telling- always.

I disagree. In the second example there is some difficulty in conveying to the reader that the woman was poisoned. After all there are many reasons a woman could fall over dead. Unless more is shown to the reader either before this example or after, the reader really isn’t sure of the reason for the woman’s collapse. Hence the drama. Showing how someone reacts to poison can either reveal or hide information from both the reader and the protagonist. If the character has been poisoned the question becomes, is the information important to the story or not?

If the action of the story requires the reader to know that the woman at dinner died of poison before the action of detecting who did the poisoning can start, showing her poisoning and the ME dissecting her body and determining poison might be pointless and slow down the story. Simply having someone tell the detective “She was poisoned” could be better.

However if the poisoning of the protagonists grandmother is actually the story; showing the grandmothers reactions to the poison without actually saying that the grandmother -has- been poisoned can be better. Telling the reader that the grandmother was poisoned could ruin the suspense.

If a writer -shows- something unnecessary to the plot, it slows the story down, but if she -tells- something that is necessary, the story can loose its richness. My biggest difficulty with outlining and editing scenes is making the decision about which is which. Deciding what a scene is about and what I want the reader to know, helps. Also keeping in mind the point of view (POV) I’ve chosen will assist me in knowing if a particular detail needs to be cut or kept in the story. After all, if the person who’s perspective the story is from wouldn’t notice or care about a detail its not a good thing to include.

Generally I have noticed that showing seems more appropriate to action in the story. It’s the part that entertains the reader and needs to be colorfully drawn to paint a strong narrative. Its what makes a story come alive. The actions that are shown need to be directly related to the story. I’ve seen showing descriptions that fall flat because they don’t pertain to the main narrative and are simply character descriptions or back story. Also showing history or back story can confuse the reader about when things happen by taking them out of time for too long.

Telling can be more appropriate for information that needs to be conveyed quickly to the reader without interrupting the flow of the narrative; as in the case of aforementioned back story. Descriptions are a tough call. It can often be better to show but in some instances a quick line of telling can achieve a lot more than a paragraph or scene of showing.

I’ve decided that the line between showing and telling is a lot thinner than some people might believe. Neither one is all ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there is no substitute for careful contemplation of a stories aims, to determine if something is best to leave in or throw out. Knowing the importance of saying the right thing, the right way, at the right time is a lot of pressure. I wish it was as simple as “Show don’t tell.

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