(~5 minutes read)
Show, Don't Tell, and Exposition
'Show, Don't Tell' is a storytelling technique for creating an experience for the reader. It aims to shift the reader emotionally closer to the story. Done well, it should involve the reader on a visceral level in the story and let him take part in the narrative by evoking sensory details.
'Show' or 'Tell' is the difference between Narration (Show) that gives a sense of physicality, interactions, emotions, and feeling what happens to the character; and Narrative Summary (Tell) that is used for exposition and engages the intellect. Telling is a narrative shortcut that compresses time while Showing is nearer to real-story-time. In and by themselves, narrative summary is not bad and even necessary sometimes, but...
Paul asked Pauline to marry him and she said 'No'. Is that good storytelling? No? Were you expecting something else? Well, you should be feeling betrayed, but not at Pauline—at the author. He cheated you out of an experience.
Before you now think 'Okay, gotcha, I'll never tell anything again' I need to say that, as with all things in writing, there are times when narrative summary has its place. Read on for when; and... what is 'telling' anyway?
(Narrative Summary) TELLING is:
All of them tell the reader how a character feels or think but don't let the reader experience the emotion himself. They are called filtering words.
- BASIC SENSORY words: hear, see, smell,... these words tell the reader about sensory input into the protagonist. They're objective, without inflection.
- BASIC INTROSPECTIVE words: seems, feel, think, wonder, belief, know, decides, notice, and their derivatives.
- BASIC EMOTIONAL words: Happy, sad, angry, frustrated,...
Maybe you think that if only you avoid filtering and use stronger words, you'll be showing. Not so. I'd argue that if you're telling something to the reader, you're using exposition—describing something—on a personal level, but which still 'tells'. e.g. Your writing will be a bit more colourful when you say 'elated' instead of 'happy', but you still tell me what the character feels.
'Telling' means widening the narrative distance. It feels safe, because we're interacting with our own surroundings in the same way. If someone asks you how you feel, you answer "I'm happy," maybe. You tell your friend how you feel. You don't describe the elation you feel when you look up at the sky and it widens and widens until you think you can embrace the whole horizon and do anything, have everything within reach. 'Happy' can mean so many things, and maybe you thought I meant something completely different when you heared me tell you 'I'm happy'. The same happens in writing. When you let your character say 'I'm happy' and then go on to explain why he's happy so the reader gets the correct picture, why aren't you showing the reader the exact emotion he should experience right from the start?
That's exactly what you have to do in writing when you want to show.
Some other ways a writer increases—sometimes unconsciously—narrative distance is by telling about the intention (e.g. picking up the phone to call someone) in order/an attempt to...
Or telling that something comes before, then, or after something else. Suddenly and as soon as, hits the same groove. They disrupt the narrative and take the reader out of story-real-time. Look out for a follow-up article about editing and immediacy of the narrative.
In writing, when you're telling, you lack confidence. Tell, and you'll be safe. Say it through exposition, because then you won't have to feel. It's always a good idea to use strong words that best describe the experience of the character; just don't stop there. Good stuff always takes a stand. In writing, there's no place for timidity. Show me the truth. Show me lies. I don't care, but show me.
(Narrative) SHOWING is:
For starters, use strong verbs and specific nouns: A tree isn't specific, but a willow is. Are adjectives and adverbs showing or telling? Often, they are placeholders for what actually happens, so again: show me what they mean to the character, specifically, in this moment. Replace them with a description of how your characters experiences the moment. Give me details (check out the article on 'Details in Writing'). Word of caution though: Too many details aren't good either. Don't go and stick an adjectives (or more than one) to every noun within reach. Choose which ones describe best and use only them.
Create a sense of setting: The crunch of leaves under my shoes, the sensual impressions of raindrops hitting my skin... You're not interrupting the scene, you're helping me visualise. Take your time with description. Don't rush. Savour the moment. Don't minimise. Using strong words doesn't mean you should rush. Details, details. Well chosen. Use a character's physicality to give the reader the sense of being there when the setting interacts with the character, like the discomfort of rain.
Using Narrative Summary for storywide pacing:
Done right, action and dialogue scenes are showing. Dialogue and action expand time, in sync with your feelings. It creates a sense of the character by body language: Can you tell if someone has a crush just by the way his body shifts? Punctuate scenes with action and then close in on the reaction (check out the article 'Dialogue Done Right'). Movies zoom in on a particular detail after an emotionally revealing scene e.g. the guy's face after the girl rejects his marriage proposal.
But scene after intense scene of action and dialogue gets exhausting. And when you want to give readers a break, you need narrative summary because it varies rhythm and texture of the narrative. It also takes efficient care of repetitive actions, glosses over unimportant events while telling the reader that they're there, or it covers time that's too long or devoid of dramatic tension.
Also, narrative summary can be necessary and revealing when it states clearly what happened in the previous scene. Maybe your character had a highly emotional moment and now digests what happened.
And the take-away message? Don't give your reader information, give them experiences with Show AND Tell.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Rennie Brown & Dave King, HarperCollins, 2004)