Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Show Or Tell?


I like showing, and I like telling. But which do I like most? There’s only one way to find out… Discuss.

To be honest, I was well into adulthood with probably about three books under my belt before I properly grasped the concept of ‘show don’t tell.’ I went to writing groups and read how to write books and sought critical feedback and did everything I could think to do to improve, but the ‘show don’t tell’ rule always reared its ugly head. And I struggled.

I struggled for two reasons; the first one was that I didn’t really know what ‘showing’ was. And then when I did work it out, sometimes ‘telling’ just felt better.

So, with that in mind I shall clarify.

Showing is the description of events which allow the reader to experience the story through the action, words and senses of the character. It’s like a picture in writing; the reader can look at it and work out what’s going on without you having to tell them. Ernest Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory, or the theory of omission, where what is not said is just as important (if not more so) than what is said. You give the clues and allow the issues to emerge.

The whole process of showing allows the reader to engage with the text by expecting them to fill in the blanks and use their brain. You have to respect your reader to do this, to develop their own understanding of the action without detailing everything and laying it all out for them, but generally this makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

For the writer, it’s the creative challenge; the thing which gets my pulse racing and leaves me with a warm fuzzy glow when I’ve done a good job.

But, there are times when telling it how it is, is the right and proper thing to do. If you wrote a whole novel showing everything, you would have one seriously long narrative to get through. Showing requires more words so telling may cover a greater period of time more succinctly. And also, those between scene moments need to be 'told', to help the story progress and keep the pace. Telling is a legitimate shortcut which will help you and the reader move to the important drama.

So what’s it to be? Show or tell; action or exposition; painting a picture or writing a list? I guess the trick is getting the balance just right.


What do you think?