I attended Breakout Novel Intensive workshop (BONI) in Virginia Beach last month. One of the questions that people had was “When is it better to TELL (i.e., exposition) an event rather than SHOW that event in actions?” It’s a great question, and unfortunately, the answers received were vague to the point of being not terribly useful.
The bottom line seemed to be
- Don’t ALWAYS show
- Don’t ALWAYS tell
- Mix them up in your story.
As a guideline, this seems, well, not much of a guide.
So that has led me to ponder: How is a writer to know whether to record an event “on stage” as it were–i.e., show it in detail to the reader–or simply to summarize what happened?
Do you Show? Or Tell?
In some ways, it seems almost instinctive. When you’re planning your story, assuming, like me, you do plan, you write down a list of scenes that drive your story forward. Those all fall down on the SHOW side of the fence, right?
Well, probably. If they’re important enough to be plot points in your story, they’re probably important enough to show on stage. Unless of course, they’re just business-as-usual.
For example, you have a character making a long journey somewhere. Along the way, he takes a random exit ramp and stops for a burger and fries at a local diner. While he’s there, a couple guys come in and hold up the restaurant.
Is this a show incident? Or a tell incident?
If the criteria for showing is that the event be dramatic, I’d say, yup. Show this sucker in detail.
If the criteria for telling is that the event not push the hero’s story forward, I’d say, yup. Tell this as exposition.
So, which is it? Show? Or tell?
The answer is…it depends.
Show vs. Tell: How to Choose
I reached back to a classic writing book, Dwight Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER. I had thought this book was long out of print–it was originally published in 1965!–but some brilliant person (or publisher) put out a Kindle edition last year.
One caveat: This is not an easy book to comprehend. When I first got my print copy many years ago (after a long search), I found it almost incomprehensible. This is a graduate-school level text on how to be an excellent writer. If you find it too difficult, try Jack Bickham’s SCENE & STRUCTURE, which presents similar information, but in a way much easier to understand. (I believe Bickham was a student of Swain’s; both were at the University of Oklahoma.) On the other hand, coming back to Swain with a lot more writing knowledge and expertise under my belt, I find Swain much easier to understand. Just…be warned.
Anyway, I picked up a copy of Swain’s book on my Kindle. And right there was the answer to deciding whether to show or tell:
Always, the points you bear down on are those that influence the development of the story.
The time you need detail is when your focal character’s state of mind changes.
The place to summarize is where no such change takes place.
Let me just define a couple terms Swain uses. When he says “bear down on” he means “show in detail.” When he says “focal character” he means the point of view (POV) character. When he says “summarize” he means use exposition to narrate to the reader a summary of what happens. (Or leave the entire incident out of the story.)
In other words, the answer to show vs. tell is that if the event significantly changes the POV character’s perspective, goal, or emotional state, then you must SHOW it.
If the event does not change the POV character’s perspective, goal, or emotional state, then you either TELL it, or you OMIT it.
SHOW = Change in the POV character
TELL = No story-significant change in the POV character.
So, getting back to the example, if our handsome hero cowers under his diner table until the shouting’s over, then finishes his burger and fries, pays his tab and leaves…well…I’d be inclined to leave that ignominious event out of the story. Unless it was essential to show the reader what a lily-livered, yellow-bellied, creep the hero is. (Hmm…not so good as hero material, huh?)
If, on the other hand, our hero recognizes the hold-up guys, realizes they’re the bad guys chasing him across country, and sneaks out the back door so he can sabotage their getaway car…I’d say that event is one you need to SHOW.