…but it would be more fun if I showed you.
Show vs. tell is one of the more frustrating aspects of writing for me. I struggled like hell to master it and I’m not even sure that now I have it right, so bear with me as I work it out with you.
Have you ever read a novel in which the author explains everything to you? Imagine something like this:
The Hulk moved toward Lisa. He was very big and she shrank back. His face distorted in a snarl as he batted aside the rapist. The man flew into a park bench and was knocked unconscious. The Hulk touched Lisa’s face gently and disappeared into the night.
Okay, so it’s a superhero thing, but I’m trying to focus on the technique and not the deathless prose. I hope Marvel Comics doesn’t come after me for using it, but it’s illustrative. That passage tells you what happened, but it’s not very interesting, is it? In fact, it’s kind of sterile. Plodding. Wouldn’t this be better?
Lisa’s eyes were riveted on the rapist’s knife. Her heart thumped in her throat, a thick lump cutting off her scream. Her arms were limp noodles, her legs stone. Leaves rustled behind the man and her gaze shifted as a massive form rose from the hedge. A bolt of shock shot through her.
The Hulk appeared, gargantuan muscles outlined in silver from the moon’s pale glow. He moved toward them, and she shrank back. The rapist’s lip curled but he didn’t turn.
The Hulk paused, looking at them. His face distorted in a silent snarl, and a massive hand shot forward and batted the rapist aside like a bug. The man’s body hit the nearby park bench with a loud crunch, and he was still.
Lisa held her breath. Every muscle in her body stayed locked. The Hulk’s fingers stretched toward her face and her eyes clamped shut. She could hear him breathing , a steam engine with legs, and felt a slight pressure as he touched her face. The tip of his finger slid gently across her cheek. Then a thud of footsteps, shaking the ground under her feet, and she popped open her eyes just in time to see him loping off into the darkness.
“Thank you,” she whispered. A shout from the street broke her paralysis and she fumbled for her cell phone and called 911.
Is that better? I think so. I tried not to get too purple with it, but now you have a better sense of what Lisa is thinking and feeling when the rapist is holding a knife on her and the Hulk appears to save the day. It takes more time to say it, but it’s more interesting. At least I hope it is!
Telling instead of showing has its place; since the showing takes longer, a book written completely in this manner would be a thousand pages long. Lisa’s story could continue thus until we get to the next important happening:
She dutifully filled out the police report. By the time she had finished giving her statement, exhaustion had overtaken her. She called a cab, rode home in befuddled silence and fell into bed, not pausing to undress. The merciful tranquilizer of sleep stole over her.
Here you can move Lisa quickly from the police station to her apartment without boring the crap out of your reader. They won’t care about the details of the police report, her cab ride, etc. Your next chapter or scene will drive the plot, perhaps a conversation with her boss, the intrepid newspaper editor (“But J.P., I saw it! It’s real! I’m telling you, there’s a story out there and I mean to get it!”), or a sleuthing scene where she gets to the bottom of the Hulk’s mysterious appearance.
Showing brings your characters to life. It gives them a chance to do the things you want them to do, rather than sitting idly by while you tell your reader about it. I’m still working on it.
For a great cinematic example of show don’t tell, see THX 1138, a 1971 science fiction film by George Lucas, featuring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance. If you have any good examples or tips to share about this topic, please post them in the comments.