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Rated: E · Column · Educational · #1262793
Chapter 4 of "Description and Setting" by R Rozelle-- "When to Show, and When to Tell"
Believable Fiction Workshop:  May 2007

"Showing, Telling, or Combining the Two" -- from Chapter 4       

of Ron Rozelle's Description and Setting


         The best way to get your reader involved in your story, is to make him create your setting and plot action inside his head.  Creative writing is different than journalistic reporting techniques.  Reporting is almost completely made up of telling.  When you create a fiction narrative, the writer needs to do much more than just tell what's happening.  You show your reader by using lots of details, and persuade him to get personally involved by interpreting what you show.

         As you compose your story, every so often you need to step back from your text and look at how often you show, and how often you tell.  Most of what you write should be showing things with lots of details, and lots of elaboration.  When you show your characters' personalities through their behavior, you "tickle" the reader's imagination and sense of what's right and what's wrong.  It's poor writing form to come right out and tell the fact that "This character is an evil fellow."  It's direct, but it's not very interesting, and it lacks the juicy details that readers love.

         Have your antagonist slam his front door in mid sales pitch from some desperate salesperson.  When he comes home from a stressed day of work, perhaps he kicks his dog instead of greeting him with affection.  Maybe this scoundral sneaks into his girlfirend's purse and helps himself to her cash and credit cards.  Showing how your character behaves is a good way to let your reader discover his personality without being told.  Reader's get more enjoyement when they get to think about a story point, instead of just taking some fact at face value because the writer said so.  Good ficiton writers give plenty of information by showing some situation, and having the reader figure out his own conclusions.  You could tell in a sentence, but it's better to show in a number of pages.  That's the art of creative writing.

         When you show, you have a great opportunity to use the five senses to have your reader hear, see, touch, taste, and smell the experiences of your characters.  For a hypothetical example (and wishing no one any bad luck), let's consider a traffic accident.  What will be the major difference between the written police report, and the long and emotional explanation your daughter goes through so that the parents understand exactly how the family vehicle has become an undriveable heap of metal?  The police report lists a series of verifiable facts.  Your daughter's explanation would include sights of blundering vehicles running red lights, and big trucks jumping medians, sounds of squeeling tires, metal crunching metal, and the crashing of falling glass.  Then, always, comes the ambulance siren signaling i, growing louder as it approaches from the distance.  The police report lacks emotion.  Your daughter's explanation is so full of the emotions and the senses she experienced, you may feel like you've lived through the wreck yourself.

         If you have been involved in a traffic accident yourself recently, try to re-live the experience by writing about it.  You'll discover that showing what happens gives a much fuller understanding than telling a fact in a concise, direct, and to the point way.  Showing makes a bigger impression on the reader than telling.

         Your reader comes to your writing with a lifetime of experience to draw from, and relate to, as he reads your narrative. Work to bring out the reader's emotions from making him remember his similar experience.  When the reader connects with a story, he is experiencing the emotion you so cleverly set up.  He overlays the feelings of his experience onto the situation in your story.  Foreshadowing a great psychological technique to experiment with in your longer stories.  Create images, situations, and emotions in your story that have a universal human drama.  Think of a situation that everyone goes through, big things and little things, but something that pulled on your emotions.  Relay it in delicate portions, building the reader's emotional investment.

         By universal, I mean that it eventually happens to everybody.  It's the idea of Murphy's Law, as a specific example.  "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."  Everyone has experienced something similar at some time in their lives.  Set up your story so the reader can easily plug in his life experiences, expectations, dreams,feelings into the world your story creates. 

         I viewed "A Raisin in the Sun" last weekend, a 1961 Sidny Poitier, black and white film, set in a one bedroom Chicago tenament.  Powerful!  I recomend it as a vehicle to have your emotions fall in line with one, or more characters.  Meta messages, realizations occured for the characters, and me too.  I was emotionally exhausted when the film was over.  Here's a link to a fabulous current production, if you're in the area. 


Lorraine Hansberry wrote the original screenplay in 1959.  If you want to write a certain genre, such as a screenplay, that's where you need to spend a large percentage of your reading time.  Writers write best what they know!  (another universal). 

         As well as showing works for a writer of fiction, no short story or novel can rely on that technique 100% of the time.  A spell binding mystery will probably use a combination of both showing and telling.  That's what Ray Bradbury does in this exerpt from The Martian Chronicles.

"Mr and Mrs K were not old.
They had the fair and brownish skin of the true Martian,
the yellow coin eyes, the soft musical voices.  Once they
had liked painting pictures with chemical fire, swimming
in the canals in the seasons when the wine trees filled them
with green liquors, and talking into the dawn  together by
the blue phospherous portraits in the speaking room."

         There are situations where careful inticate showing will be best when followed by  rapid telling.  If you will re-read one of your own stories with this "show and tell" creative issue in mind, you'll discover that a particular need or circumstance dictates when to show and when to tell.  It becomes intuitive after a certain amount of writing.  It's an excellent writer's technique to develop, because effective writers do this.  At any rate, keep in mind that the creative writer's job is to do more showing of details than telling of direct info.

         In dealing with the "show and tell" decision, don't overcompensate (as I think I have begun to do as I try to end this essay) , and shift into overdrive, thereby doing both showing and telling of the same piece of information.  See if you can identify the problem in this student's passage}

"Martha Louise considered the three large muffins
in her hand.  She thought of the sweet sugar taste of the icing,
and how they would feel as she slowly chewed them, and how they
would taste, like sweet cream and butter and cinnamon.  She
even thought of the crumbling bits of muffin that would trickle down
her face and onto her dress.

Then she considered the pair of barefooted girls, standing beside
the wagon near her.  Their dresses looked as if they had been
handed down through a family of many children.  Their big eyes
were as empty as their stomachs surely were.

Martha Louise sniffed at the muffins just once, then handed
them to the girls.  She was a generous child,"

         After all the muffin and girls details, the reader already realizes that Martha Louise is generous.  Showing and telling the same event is redundant and doesn't give your reader credit for thinking.  Please, don't insult your audience.  Good writing will show OR tell a thing, but not do both.

         Actions speak louder than words.  We've all seen or heard of television preachers who lash out with waves of fire and brimstone, warning sinners against unethical behavior.  When these preachers--verbally virtuous individuals--have been caught in their own scandalous dens of inequity, we realize they don't practice what they preach.  They didn't show what they told.

         Showing is more credible than telling.  Details, details, and more details, will enable a writer to show his readers in pages of story what the author could state and be done with in a couple of sentences.  The next time you re-read some of your own fiction writing, you might look to identify a "tell" passage that would work better as a "show" passage, or visa versa.  A good writer is a good editor, and the work of a good editor is never done *Smile*

Show and Tell --Warm up, Exercises, and Prompt

Exercise 1.  Make a chart, and keep it handy for reference.  Use a poster board and markers, and keep it by your desk awhile.  Collect some images from magazines or the Internet to paste on as visual examples along with your verbs or phrases.  Keep it around your writing area awhile as inspiration.

         Choose a verb, but make it an action verb.  Make a list of several common verbs that are generic in their meaning.  Pick simple action verbs like walk, talk, and hit.  Choose easy verbs you use often.  Then, take a few minutes with each verb, and write down as many other verbs or phrases that are more specific in their meaning.  Your goal is not to create a catalog of precise descriptions, but instead practice refining an action down to it's most clear description.

         An excellent source to use in this process is a thesaurus--either the always within reach,falling apart, hardbound thesaurus used in college (like me) , or perhaps a more recently publised edition.  If you don't have your own thesaurus to use, I personally question your commitment to writing.  It's a writer's tool I couldn't live without.  There are serveral Internet sites, with different years, cultures vernaculars, and other options available at Amazon.com.  A thesaurus is a gift a writer gives herself (or I did).  A paperback thesaurus can be found for less than $5.00, and you have a way to always find the word with the exact nuance, to trigger your writer's emotions or make him understand a concept, of view a scene.  You can Google to find online thesauri (plural), or check out these thesaurus useful sites with which I'm familiar. 


http://www.m-w.com                          Merrium Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus

http://www.bartleby.com/thesauri       Thesaurus, and quotes available too

http://www.thesaurus.reference.com  Roget's Thesaurus ed. 1995,
                                                                  1911 ed. available at U of Chicago site

http://www.visualthesaurus.com      3-D planet like association of words, interactive

         In using a thesuarus, you look up a word you can think of, knowing it's similar to the meaning of the word you want to use.  When you locate the word, you will find a large list of words with similar meanings.  I usually keep my dictionary handy to double check exactly what these similar words mean.  This is serious-page-turning- writer's-research!  It's fun, and useful to be a language hound (linguist) when you're a writer.  If you can't think of the exact word you want, I find a thesaurus invaluable in finding the right way to put it. 

Exercise 2. Think of, and then write, some ways you could show the things that are told in these short sentences.  Have a go at expanding and elaborating these statements.

*  The man is nervous

*  The lawn has been mown and recently trimmed.

*  The student is ready for the final bell of the day to ring.

*  The larger of the two dogs is arrogant.

Exercise 3:  Your Extended Prompt:

         Here are some "telling" statements that you could rework into short compositions that "show".  Remember NOT to use telling words and phrases like hears, feels, felt like, smelled like....  This section is encouraging you to show details of elaboration.

*  Sunsets are nice at the beach.

*  A housewife's work is never done.

*  He had never looked closely at his father-in-law.

*  It seemed that the mail would never come

Please repond to any or all of the prompts in a new item with a title you pick for show and tell month here at the Believable Fiction Workshop.  After you have composed and saved your item, please go to the UWW forum, and post your work in bitem form so that others in the workshop can read and respond and compare their ideas with yours.  It's not competitive, because all participants win.  When we share our work, no one is right or wrong.  We get to experience a variety of perspectives on the subject, and that's a big plus.

The UWW forum is located at
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