Show vs. Tell Revisited

Show vs. tell is one of the toughest things for beginning writers to grasp.   You’d think that exposition would be easy.  It is, when you’re explaining something.  But you can’t do that through a whole book, or your reader will get tired.

To show readers something takes more time and more words, but it brings your prose to life.  Would you rather see a movie, or have your friend tell you about it like “And then the Brad Pitt guy took this thing, and he shot this other guy with it, and then the villain—I can’t remember his name, but you would know him—blew up the bridge and they flew through the air—“ et al.

A while ago, I wrote a post trying to explain the difference between show and tell in writing.  Well, I was reading back through some old entries and realized my examples were WRONG WRONG WRONG.

I think I finally get it (let’s hope so).  After doing rewrites of certain bits of my book Rose’s Hostage and forcing myself to take time to read more, I was able to see the concept more clearly.

Telling is just like it says, telling.

Buffy and Xander were terrified of the Powder Demon and its deadly spray, which rendered its victims immobile before their skin dissolved from their flesh.

Yeah, okay, but it’s dull.   Try this instead:

Buffy’s chest tightened, a fist squeezing her throat shut.  Her legs wobbled and she halted.  The Powder Demon hadn’t seen them yet.  She glanced at Xander and saw his eyes roll back in his head, and caught him as he fainted.  Her skin itched as she thought of the poor cop, dissolving like a piece of soap coated with the Demon’s spray.

Nowhere in here do I tell you Buffy and Xander are scared, but you figure it out from the way they are acting.

Please don’t do it with Hollywood dialogue, like this example where Joker tells Batman the incredibly obvious:

“Why, look, it’s the Batman,” Joker whispered, his foul breath drifting into the captured hero’s face.  “You thought you could keep your secret identity a secret, didn’t you? But then you crashed your Batcycle on the slippery oil I poured on the roadway.  And then your wallet fell out of your cape!  Sloppy, sloppy.  I’ve got you now, Bruce Wayne!”


Skipping a scene entirely and telling about it later also works for transitions when:

  • Your character is doing something tedious that you don’t want to waste time on before the next scene. Your scenes should advance the plot, not describe someone’s bathroom routine, unless you’re establishing character.
  • You’re starting a new book or new episode and want to review (re Harry at the Dursleys house in each subsequent Harry Potter book).

In Rose’s Hostage,  I originally had the bank robber musing about his lost money like this:

Joshua had been surprised and shocked when he showed up at Stefano Barbieri’s dry cleaners, one of the front businesses for the money laundering operation and his preferred pickup point, and Stefano told him it was gone.  He and Stefano had gone out back and had a little argument about not checking with him first.  In fact, his knuckles were still scraped raw. 

Dull, boring and blah.

In revision, that ended up as a really fun scene by itself.  I was able to establish a motive for Barbieri to later ID the bank robber and tie up a loose end from an earlier cut.

Heh heh.  Revision is fun.

The best cinematic example I know of show vs. tell is George Lucas’ 1971 science fiction film TXH 1138, starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance.  A dystopian society is revealed to us not through voice-over narration, but through the daily activities of the title character, everyday-type dialogue (no exposition) and setting.  Gradually we come to realize how these people are living.

Showing is easy in film but not so much with prose.  Practice with some of your own work.  Look for examples where you’ve told your readers what you want them to know, and see if you can’t expand a little and show them instead.

2 thoughts on “Show vs. Tell Revisited

  1. Good stuff, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love that you picked a Buffy and Xander scene as your show versus tell example!
    In my workshop in Kansas this summer, we talked a lot about when to show versus tell, which scenes you want to show and what parts of the story you can ‘skip over’ with a bit of quick telling to connect the more important scenes.
    I never saw TXH 1138 – going to have to add that to the (very long) list of things to check out!

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