THE PLACE TO BE FOR ALL YOUR STORY WRITING NEEDS
TIME FOR SHOW AND TELL
You may have already heard all about:
"Show, don't tell"
"It's show V.S. tell"
"Show is flouncy and over-rated"
Well, I'd love to say just focus on one (or the other), but a good story has both. A great story learns how to combine them.
We'll call back Jane from the 'Agency'(?) section as our unwitting guinea pig, and she is about to enter a room, find a bloodied knife and get a bit of a fright.
First, I will tell you the story.
Jane walked into the room. She looked at the red walls, the tall bookcases and the dust covering the once green carpet. To her right, she could see a knife lying on the floor. Jane tiptoed over, as if the knife might leap up and attack her.
Jane froze as she heard a rustle. She looked up just in time to see one of the thick velvet curtains settle. Knowing that she was doing exactly what she always screamed at girls for doing in horror movies, Jane inched toward the curtain.
She took a breath and clutched the edge of the curtain. With a quick hand, she whipped the curtain sideways.
Something screeched loudly. She jumped backwards into the big leather chair behind the desk, her heart hammering. Her breathing was ragged as she eyed the large grey tomcat that prowled toward her with its orange eyes narrowed.
Jane put a hand to her chest, trying to calm her breathing. It was just a cat, but that still didn't explain the bloodied knife.
So here I have told you what happened. I have told you what the colour of items were, and what was behind the curtain. I have also told you where everything is.
Now, I will show you the same story.
Jane's footsteps made no sound on the thick carpet, but her socks scuffed up tiny clouds of dust. The bookcases towered over her, flaunting the superior knowledge in their leather-bound tomes. She crept inside anyway with the sensation of a hundred hurrying horses stampeding in her chest.
A blot in the otherwise undisturbed dust waited for her, a knife abandoned in the middle of the floor. Jane leaned over the dainty blade and pressed her finger to the tip, applying enough pressure to prove it more dangerous to stubborn letters than to human skin. And yet blood covered the thin surface of metal, so long dried it looked almost black.
A soft rustling filled the silent room. Jane's limbs seized and the stampeding horses returned to race around her ribcage. She tiptoed toward the curtains and inched her fingertips over the soft crushed velvet. With a shaking hand, she clenched her fist and swept the curtain aside in a whirling rush of stale air. Dust clouded toward her and the disturbed particles tickled up her nose.
A screeching noise filled her ears, a banshee wailing its fury. Jane tumbled back and her hip crashed into the chair behind her. The horses showed no signs of slowing and they had her breathing on a very tight rein.
A large beast of matted grey fur and panther-like muscles prowled toward her. Amber eyes glowered like simmering volcanoes. Jane pressed a shaking hand to her chest.
The grey tomcat flicked its tail, a warning, and stalked past her. The bookcases seemed to loom even higher above her as she tried to find enough calm to pull her breath all the way into her lungs. All the while, the bloodied knife lay undisturbed on the floor, the mysterious history of how it got there still unsolved.
So with telling, we have specifics:
The walls are red.
Jane walked across the room.
The knife is on the floor.
We're telling the reader the facts.
I like to think about telling as giving the reader the 5 W's (and one H):
With showing, we're embellishing the detail to give a more immersive experience.
Imagine you’re at an interactive fright night:
If they told you 'a ghost is around the corner', and you walk around the corner and there is a ghost, you think 'oh, there's the ghost they told me about'.
You Know it but you don’t Feel it.
If they instead say 'I can hear a weird wailing sound', chances are that your senses have been prodded even if you can't hear the sound. You'll be trying to listen to see if you too can hear a weird wailing. When you come across the ghost, the anticipation will mean you're more immersed in the experience. Your senses have essentially invested themselves.
Now, if you're like me both will still make you jump, BUT it's a good way of looking at Show and Tell.
Telling is giving the reader the facts – the 5 W's (and 1 H).
Showing is invoking the reader's senses – aiming to get them emotionally and mentally invested.
So how do we know when to show and when to tell?
Simply put (and I'm doing this in the voice of Emperor Kuszko from Emperor's New Groove for some reason):
What does your reader need?
Jane and Sandra are driving to the supermarket. When they get to the supermarket, they're going to have a row and Sandra is going to storm off and leave Jane stranded (she's cosy like that).
Does the reader need to know what happens on the car journey?
Do they have a very poignant conversation?
Does the car stall and if so, is this key to the plot later on in the story?
Does the reader need to know about the in-depth delights of the car's upholstery and the passing scenery – and if they do need to, will they care?
If the answer to all of the above is a solid no, chances are you can tell the reader that bit and get to the juicy bits of the story.
Jane let Sandra drive to the supermarket and happily handed over the keys, secretly relieved that she could nurse her headache in the passenger seat. The moment they pulled up at the supermarket however, Sandra drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and swung to face Jane.
"Aren't you going to get a trolley then?" she demanded. "I did do the driving."
We've told the reader that Jane let Sandra drive, and sneakily dropped in the nugget that Jane has a headache, like a writing super-person.
We've not spent any of the reading time on the actual drive itself or had to describe the car.
We simply jump straight to the supermarket and back into showing mode. We show Sandra's fingers drumming, indicating she is impatient, and she swings to face Jane rather than turns, swinging showing her level of energy. We've also thrown in some speech to show what kind of mood Sandra is in.
If you were to tell the entire thing, it would be something more like:
Jane let Sandra drive to the supermarket and handed over the keys. She felt relieved that she could nurse her headache in the passenger seat. The moment they pulled up at the supermarket however, Sandra turned to Jane and demanded she get a trolley.
I won't sully your reading time with an example of showing, as I very much doubt any of you need an in depth experience of Jane and Sandra's car, but you can practice with your own stories as much as you like.
I have of course added an interactive worksheet, downloadable and printable for all your showy telly needs:
It is there to help you lean one way or the other, or generate ideas and get the brain sparking, rather than a hard and fast answer one way or the other. When in doubt, ALWAYS follow your gut.
Telling is giving your reader the facts, while showing is immersing your reader in the senses. You could say instead of 'Show and Tell' it's more like 'Feel and Know', but that doesn't have as much ring to it.
Rule Number 4 - ALWAYS SAVE AND BACK-UP YOUR WORK!