Monday, May 3, 2010

Showing vs. Telling - What IS Showing? Really.

You know how we love to talk about how pat answers and cliches in fiction do more harm than good - leaving the story flat, the reader unsatisfied?

Yeah, well I feel that way when I read or hear people talking about Showing Vs. Telling in fiction. Mostly what I hear is pat answers and what is increasingly becoming cliche definitions. I understand this is mostly an attempt to find a simple answer to a complex question, yet I get the feeling that in our search we've forgotten that the question IS complex. Multi-faceted. Difficult.

Ah, difficult. How we do run from difficult. All of us do it to varying degrees. But the vision of the fiction writer is to embrace difficult (do you recall Patti Hill's wonderful imagery of wrestling an octopus into a mayonnaise jar?) We eat difficult for breakfast.

My goal for this post is not to be the teacher in the front of the room with all the answers. I'm so over myself about needing to have all the answers. Instead, my goal is to open the discussion and invite you to wrestle with the complexity of creating the story world through the device of showing.

What Showing ISN'T.

We often see people explaining showing vs. telling in terms similar to this: Telling is just saying what a character is doing. Showing is describing what the character is doing.

Not so much.

It isn’t enough to describe events in detail – there must be a purpose for both the details you are describing and the characters that are performing the actions.

What is often left out of the showing vs. telling discussion is that there are reasons why a writer would choose to use either telling or showing at different points in the story. There are aspects of your story you are best to tell - details of time and place, clothing details, sometimes setting a scene up quickly requires telling because to show it all would distract from the story.

Showing isn't detail - showing is story.

Telling isn't lack of detail - telling is story.

How often have you heard "Show, don't tell"? Does that mean you are being asked to describe things in detail? Yes and no.

Let me give you and example:

She hurried down the path toward the dark palace, the cloak draped over her arm. The birds over head sang their goodnight song. She shouldn't have stayed so long at her friend's house. She walked faster, picking the hem of her skirt up with her free hand. She pushed a low hanging branch out of the way as she hurried past. She reached an opening in the trees that lead to the valley that would take her to the doors of the palace. She stopped and draped the cloak over her shoulders and tied it at her throat. She checked inside the bag that was slung across her torso. Fire sticks, water, a small cloth, her Father's book of Hope and a forgotten apple.

She pulled the apple out of the bag and bit into it. She made quick work of the apple and threw the small core and stem into the forest behind her. She slapped at her dress, removing most of the dust from its folds, then took the small cloth from her bag and wiped at the stains around the hem of her dress. She replaced the cloth and stepped into the grassy meadow. It was wet with evening dew. She picked up her skirts and rushed on toward the place gates.

Showing galore, right?


For all the detail about what the character is doing, the passage is still telling. It’s flat. A list of mundane activities being spelled out in succession. It doesn't connect us to the story world.

The above passage is missing essential components of showing - and this brings me to the point I made at the beginning of this post - the literary device of showing is complex. It isn't one thing - it is made up of several other devices used together to create the illusion of reality.

I want to touch on two components of showing that I feel are essential. Point of View (POV) and subtext. Then, I want to invite you to share your perspectives, insights, and knowledge.

Parts of Showing


POV is a pillar of “showing” – it’s a brace for the concept, because POV not only introduces characters to the reader, it grounds the reader immediately, creating a safe and trustworthy place. Without POV what we are left with is a picture of what a character is doing – but we don't know or care about the character. POV establishes how the reader will relate to the novel and the subject matter. It sets the tone and takes the reader by the hand, leading her deeper into the story.

Let me just say, I'm not talking about whether you tell your story in first person or third person or if you write in present tense or past tense. I'm referring to POV as the presenting characters in a well rounded sense, utilizing character information from their mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects. POV that is a multi-dimensional presentation of character that begins the moment the novel opens and continues to develop until the end of the book.

Let’s get back to our example. The author of this scene tells us the character hurries and races, but there is nothing to ground us to the character – who is she? What is she thinking? Why are her actions important to me as a reader? There is no glimpse of the inner world of this character. And that, in part, makes the scene telling rather than showing.

A second component of showing that I want to talk about is subtext.

I started my creative life as an stage actor - I still have sawdust between my toes. A huge part of learning to act was learning to portray subtext, the hidden but most truthful motivations and meanings of a characters words and actions.

Subtext is more easily recognized by its absence - oh blah, the story is flat and clich├ęd - than it is by its presence -the words lingered long after I put the book down.

In his book, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Charles Baxter says subtext is ". . . the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken." He also uses the phrase, "unspoken soul-matter".

It may sound mysterious, but it isn’t as vague as it may sound at first brush. It is the art of leaving something unsaid about the stated theme and mood of the book. Your story has a plot, setting, a theme, a message – all of which are stated in the book, through story and the things you explore.

Subtext is used to paint depth of meaning into the pages of your story. It is felt by the reader more strongly than if you stated the meaning. It is the ultimate tool of showing vs. telling.

Rather than me giving definitions of subtext – lets do a short exercise.

Settle on a character. Could you from the book you are currently working on, one you're recently read. Or one you make up for the exercise. Got one? Good.

So, your character says, “I don’t understand why you’re arguing with me.”

Imagine a scene – a snapshot in your mind where one character is saying this to another character. Very quickly – what are you seeing in your snapshot? Write it down.

Now, think about the same line of dialogue, but add a subtext of meaning – the character still says "I don't understand why you're arguing with me." but what the character is feeling underneath the statement - what the character truly means to say, but cannot is: “I want you to love me.”

Write the scene with this subtext.

What changes in your scene when you add the subtext of “I want you to love me”?

Something that would change for me would be the way the character is standing, perhaps her posture, or what she does with her arms and hands. The expression on her face changes, the tone of her voice – the way she says the words, not in the clipped tones of someone in charge, but in pleading bleats that trail off, and lack conviction.

Okay, those are two components of showing. But, of course there are more. This is complex. Share your thoughts. What confusing things have you heard about showing and telling? How have you worked with the device in your own writing? Can you share a great example of telling? Share!


Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I sooo relate to this. My very first critique as a baby writer I received the advice that I used the word 'was' too often and that it meant I was passive and telling when I should be showing. But without further advice, my only fix was to find substitute words for 'was.'

To me, part of showing is trusting the reader enough to let them draw their own conclusions. For example there is rarely a need to name an emotion. Instead describe what the character is experiencing as far as sensation and the immediate thoughts going through their heads, or if it's not your POV character, describe how they are doing something. The reader then draws their own conclusions as to the emotion in question. This is a little scary as a writer because what if they don't get it right? Well, some people probably won't. We all come to a novel with different backgrounds and baggage. We may attribute an emotion that the writer never intended. BUT that doesn't mean the book will be less powerful. By engaging the reader and letting them infer the feelings of the characters the book is more intensely personal and meaningful than if they were instructed in every detail and nuance.

Thank you, BTW for opening up this dialogue. It is long overdue! I think the advice has become so pat that some tag any evidence of telling as if it were wrong without looking at the piece as a whole. There are times when telling moves the story along more efficiently. We can't, and wouldn't want to show everything. Sometimes a couch is just a couch, it's there to be sat on and serves no other literary purpose.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

And there it is.

Fantastic example. I've heard to cut almost all telling and while I agree lots of it should be chopped, there is a time and place for it.

And to that point, as you wrote, showing can be just a list of actions without purpose or feeling behind them.

Saved this to my favorites.

~ Wendy

Jan Cline said...

This post is a must keep. As a newer author, I struggled with this so much! But now, with help from people like you, I'm beginning to understand the true principle of showing. It's difficult for us die hard tellers to break the habit!

Nicole said...

I totally agree with your assessment of the mantra "Show don't tell." It's overblown and seldom adequately explained, and it assumes or transmits that "telling" is bad which you pointed out it is not--and is impossible not to do in a story.

The POVs from which the story is written do matter. It could be argued that first person POV is almost entirely telling because in fact the first person is giving us or telling us the story. With omnisicient POV (I know: rarely used anymore, but I used it in the first section of my second novel) telling is a must.

As you pointed out, Bonnie, I don't think it's clear cut even with examples. It's easier to recognize when it's done "wrong" or "inadequately" than when it's done "right" or "well". So . . . I'm not much help at all!

Bonnie Grove said...

Lisa: Good point about emotions. They are a hot button in fiction and used well can help us in our use of subtext - telling a deeper part of the story. My personal opinion about whether the reader will interpret the emotion "correctly" is that, yes, she will. Every time. Because the novel belongs to her and is open fully to her interpretation of it. So, there is no "wrong" way. Art belongs to the beholder.

Wendy, I've heard that too. Cut all telling. I can't imagine how long these novels would be if every detail had to be spelled out in long speak. Ugh. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Jan: It is a slippery concept. I think, in part, because it's different and new each chapter, each novel. We have to stay on our toes and keep so many plates spinning at the same time when we are crafting a novel. Thanks for chiming in!

Nicole: The things I've talked about in the post are irrespective of which POV is used. First person isn't "telling" as we are talking about it - as a literary device. I think much confusion comes into play because the writing world tends to use many phrases interchangeably. Telling, POV, theme, tone, etc - are all words that have multiple meanings in writing. Makes things twice as confusing!

Unknown said...

Great post, Bonnie. I'm going to try to consciously use some of your insights today as I'm writing. Thank you for a very useful and insightful post!

Tammy Doherty said...

I love this post! I'm sharing it with all my CP's. We struggle with show vs tell all the time.

I did your subtext exercise, but last year after someone else's advice. I have a scene in which the H&H are essentially arguing. Up till now he's been the nice one and she the cold one. In this scene it's reversed. But I don't say so, I don't even say why. I just have him being a bit stand-offish. Her subtext isn't "I want you to love me"...not yet, at least :D But she does want him to like her. So she follows him as he tries to leave the scene, keeps trying to engage him in conversation. I think that's what you mean by subtext.

For the "leave it unwritten" subtext, here's an example from my current wip: Quiet descended, starting in the back of the room and moving forward like a wave. Something had the effect Mike’s gavel lacked. Sean turned. Officer Eric Coffey, in uniform, strode down the aisle. He stopped at the row where Sheila stood staring, her mouth still open as if to say more.

“You’re disrupting the meeting.” Eric’s voice was even and calm. Professionally cold. He gestured toward the door and stepped back to allow his wife to proceed him out of the auditorium.

My CP's all made the same comment - "oooh, cold." Which made me happy, because the subtext is that their marriage is on shaky ground and Eric is fed up with his wife's antics.

I welcome any comments as to whether or not I'm getting this concept right! (ps - thanks, Lisa, for saying writers need to trust the reader. I hate reading a book that treats me like a dullard!)

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Bonnie - thanks for an excellent explanation. I think I'm starting to a get a subconscious understanding of showing vs. telling, but explaining it to someone else is still difficult, so I appreciate this post!

Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne: That you are at all in need of any scrap of idea I have blows my mind. When I teach showing vs. telling, I use your writing as example of how it's done.

KoalaBear: It is a slippery concept. I very much feel my limitations when I talk about showing vs. telling. It's something we can talk about, discuss, and work with, and then at some point we give ourselves over to the creative, and simply "do".

Tammy: You are so brave to share a piece of your work in progress with us! Thank you so much for doing that.
My first thought is that your critique group reacted to the tone of your scene rather than to the subtextual meaning. (at least as far as this small sample is concerned. I realize it is impossible to share the whole with us). Their very good reaction of "ohhh, cold" is stated in the text. You have even used the word 'cold' to describe Eric's tone. Nothing at all wrong with that - and while I can't say for certain because I haven't read the full scene, I would have to say that subtext isn't playing a big role here. But, it could - depending on the stated themes (moral problem) of your story.

Let me share an example filled with subtext from
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing. I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve."

This narrative stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. I gazed out the window and replayed the meaning - the subtext - over and over in my mind.

The novel is a letter from an aged father to his young son - the son he knows he will never see grown. All along I thought the letter from the father was a way to ensure the son never forgets his father. When I read the above passage, I realized the "truth" about the father - the subtext told me that while the father clung to the idea of being remembered, he in fact felt he had already been forgotten. The passage also has the subtext of a prayer, a psalm of thanks to shore up his wavering belief.

The subtext is always in reference to the overall themes of the novel - but it expresses the latent meaning, the deeper "haunted meaning".

Clear as mud?

Unknown said...

Iron sharpens iron, my dear Bonnie. I ALWAYS learn something useful from you.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Show vs. tell is a concept I continue to grapple with, especially catching those "telling" spots in subsequent edits or rewrites.

One device that has helped me is Margie Lawson's EDITS system (If anyone hasn't taken one of her online courses, I highly recommend them!). It's all about varying emotional reactions, body language, etc., to show the character's emotions rather than tell them. I'm still not there, but her concepts are getting me closer.

Suzanne said...

This is probably the most comprehensive definition of showing vs. telling I've ever read. I hope you don't mind if I share a link to your article on my blog so my readers can benefit from this excellent article as well.

Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne: Mwah!

Sarah: I haven't heard of EDITS before. Thanks for the resource! I hope people check it out.

Suzanne: I don't mind at all. In fact, I'm flattered! :)

Unknown said...

I googled for help with showing vs. telling and low and behold it's a blogger (well a bunch of you!) banned together to tell me a little bit more about it!!

Your blog is a godsend! Exactly what I needed, you gave me help that I didn't even know I needed! I look forward to following from here on out!

Latayne C Scott said...

Welcome, Jen! Join in the conversation -- we're thrilled to have you here!

Anonymous said...

From the reader's point of view, there is definitely a subtext to your telling example as well, and even with an explicit subtext, it wouldn't have been all telling. I don't see how it is possible to write a "complete" text with all layers of it "told", especially from a reader's point of view.

I think your advice is excellent, but there isn't a single text without elements of both showing and telling, including extreme examples.