Deciding when to show and when to tell
We know “show don’t tell” is a vital concept because it is constantly drilled into writers, but the truth is, the application is subtle, and therefore often difficult. How the heck do you decide which technique is most appropriate in each instance?
Well, I’m going to provide you with a simple process to help you choose the best way to go, so you can be confident that you are using showing and telling in a way that is going to best suit your story and engage readers at the right time. This is the key to achieving that special blend of storytelling and emotive demonstration that enables us to convey our landscapes, characters, and plots in an engaging way.
Making a conscious choice
In order to integrate showing and telling satisfactorily, you need to make conscious decisions about relevance, quantity, and the delivery method you’re going to use, but when it comes to actually writing the words, the biggest choice is whether it’s more appropriate to use showing or telling.
Let’s look at how to make that decision and then translate it into emotionally compelling prose that grips readers.
But first, there is one concept that is critical to understanding the whole concept of showing and telling.
The concept of meshing
I believe the reason so many writers struggle with showing and telling is because the two devices aren’t incompatible and don’t exist independently. They rely on one another to move the story forwards at the right pace and to draw readers in.
- Showing creates drama and movement, enabling readers to feel, touch, smell, hear and see the events as they unfold, so they feel like they are participating in the story.
- Telling conveys information succinctly and poetically, so the author can get essential information across quickly.
If you accept that both showing and telling are intertwined throughout a story and you will use them simultaneously, then all you have to do is to figure out which one to accentuate at any given moment. That’s much easier, right?
Should you use more showing or telling?
To decide if dramatizing a situation using showing or sticking to straightforward storytelling is the best option, you need to scrutinize the emotional value of the information or event.
I’ve developed a simple flowchart to help you decide which way to go when you’re not sure.
Here are some more tips on how to know if the information or event you are writing is going to create strong emotion/drama.
Signs to look for
When looking for signs that information or an event is critical and would benefit from more showing, look for change. Ask yourself if the main character will discover, react to or make a decision about something that is going to affect their story journey or their current goal.
Here are some key moments to look for:
- A discovery – Something is revealed that will affect your main character’s choices or attitude, like:
- Important information.
- Fundamental beliefs are challenged.
- Action is taken.
- A reaction – The consequences of an event:
- The aftermath is dire, e.g. life-threatening or relationship ruining.
- It forces a change to the character’s goal or plans.
- The character has a powerful emotional reaction, like being elated, upset or angry.
- A decision – The main character decides what course of action to take next, like:
- A commitment is made to continue pursuing the goal.
- A thought process or conversation shows how the decision is reached.
- The character realizes that she’s been aiming for the wrong goal.
- Planning – The main characters formulate a plan to reach the goal.
- This is how they are going to achieve their goal, like gather resources, seek information, accept help.
- A thought process or conversation to show what the plan is.
Apply the perfect blend of showing and telling
Once you’ve decided if you’re going to use more showing or more telling (remember it’s not one or the other because they are both happening in any scene), then there are a variety of devices to make the delivery fresh and emotive. (See below for details of Sandy’s workshop, which will go into each technique in depth.)
Let’s take a look at a single event and how to apply this decision process.
- SCENARIO – A woman spends two hours making sure she looks her best for a job interview, because she needs the job to make the next rental payment.
- QUESTION 1 – Is this event vital to drive the story forwards?
We know that the job interview is important to this woman, but do we need to see her preparing for it? It depends if the reader already understands the importance of the interview, in which case you can probably just get her to the interview as quickly as possible, because that’s where all the drama is likely to occur. A bridging sentence is a good way to do this, e.g.: After two hours agonising over which suit and accessories to wear, Dianne sat in the waiting room, taking deep breaths to keep her centred.
- DECISION 1 – For the purposes of this example, let’s say the reader as no idea what’s on the line if Dianne doesn’t get hired for this job, in which case we should keep the scene.
- QUESTION 2 – Does the event create strong emotional drama?
Considering how much Dianne has to lose at this point in the story (her home) and how nervous she would be preparing for the interview, it will definitely cause a strong emotional reaction.
- DECISION 2 – The reader needs to know how important the interview is to Dianne and why, so this is a chance to use more showing.
Maybe not all two hours of it because this scene isn’t as important as the next, but certainly to help the reader feel the anxiety and understand the reasons behind it, like not being able to make her next rental payment and being tossed out on the street.
Where to next?
As you can see, both showing and telling are valuable techniques that exist in harmony, and now you have an easy-to-use strategy to help you decide which to lean on more in each instance. Getting this right throughout your story can be the difference between readers sticking with it until the end and abandoning it at the first sign of an information dump.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into how to combine showing action with effective telling, so you can avoid information dumps, maximize sensory details and write stories that readers can’t put down, then grab a place in Sandy’s wildly popular Master Emotive Storytelling and Showing workshop, starting on 2nd November 2020. (This is your last chance to master your showing and telling this year.)
Mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, Neve Botticelli, leads a double life. At home with her paranoid father, she is a combat trained survivalist who lives off-the-grid.
When self-made billionaire, Micah Kincaid, storms into town in search of his four-year-old son, Rowan, he’s pushy, entitled, and stands for everything Neve despises.
But something far more sinister than a cheating estranged wife, is lurking in rural Turners Gully, and it has its sights set on little Rowan’s inheritance. It turns out there is one thing Micah and Neve can agree on, and that’s keeping Rowan safe.
As they work together to free Rowan, they glimpse beneath one another’s guises, and realise that falling in love could be even more dangerous than hunting deadly criminals.