04 Feb 2008 [ Prev | Next ]

WB1-3: Showing/Telling

Both telling and showing are important ways of communicating; however, experienced writers recognize the power of showing.

  • Telling: Richard walked into a room full of zombies.
  • Telling: Richard noticed the unlocked door, peeked inside cautiously, and was horrified to discover a room full of zombies.
  • Telling: "Mr. President, I'd like you to meet the geniuses behind the Xavier Institute," said Richard. He threw open the door, revealing a room full of rampaging zombies.

The last one is actually fairly effective -- as long as it doesn't go on to say "Richards was surprised, since he didn't expect the zombies to be there."  Or "Richard was horrified by what happened next." 

No I was so thrilled that I beat the football captain in a chess game that I made a fool of myself. I'll never live that down.

This is straight telling -- we know that the protagonist makes a fool of himself, but we don't feel embarrassed for him, because we don't see any of this foolish behavior ourselves.  
Maybe My heart was pounding and my adrenaline was pumping. When I finally beat that big bully of a football captain in a chess game, I jumped around like an idiot, taunting him and laughing at him in front of the whole school. Arrogance and geekiness are not a combination that leads to social success.

While the author has added details, those details merely assist the telling -- they don't actually show anything important. We still don't get the chance to see the behavior and judge for ourselves whether it is foolish.
Yes "Your bulging muscles are useless against my superior intellect!" I laughed, as the vanquished football captain and the whole cafeteria stared. "I have captured your queen, and in three moves, I shall utterly destroy your king's little white plastic ass! Bwaaa ha ha hah!"

The completely over-the-top content of the quoted speech communicates the protagonist's emotional state as well as his arrogance; the author does not have to come out and tell us that this behavior is idiotic, because there are enough details that we can come to that conclusion ourselves.

See also: Show, Don't (Just) Tell
So... telling is not necessarily wrong, but too much telling can lead to dreadfully flat writing like the following:
Richard cocked his angular head, as his slender eyebrows knitted in thought, as he puzzled over the mysteriously unlocked door to Dr. Carter's Zombie Research Lab. Hoping not to alarm the President, who was visiting the facility in order to take a tour, As quietly as he could, Richard peeked cautiously into the cool, inky blackness of the lab.  He was suddenly horrified at the ugly masses of horribly disfigured, lethally radioactive zombie creatures who were shirieking their hiedeously undead screams as they mercilessly tore up the expensive laboratory equipment . The tiny glittering fragments that were all that remained of the colonists' hopes for a cure, and Richard's felt the cold horror gripping his soul as he saw how horribly ironic it was that a zombified Dr. Carter was attacking the president who had funded his research efforts!

Yes, it's the most descriptive version we've seen, but the author announces the significance of every single detail, leaving a critical reader with nothing to do.

Richard cleared his throat nervously when the President started striding towards Dr. Carter's Zombie Research Lab. He gritted his teeth in anger and cursed the missing guard. "I'm going to kill that idiot for leaving this door open," he grumbled savagely to himself. Of course it had to happen while he was giving a tour to the president. This was not only embarrassing - it was infuriating! His face was beet-red when he carefully opened the door his looked warily inside. A curious sound made him start to get worried. When he poked his head inside the doorway, the horrible sight made his face go white with fear. Bizarrely, the lab technicians had turned into hideous zombies - even Dr. Carter! 
The above is still telling. The writer labels every emotion the reader is supposed to feel, which gives the reader absolutely nothing to do.

Let's take a different approach. Instead of adding lines that specify the emotions we want to create, let's leave out certain details, so that the reader has to work a bit to fill in the gaps. The reader will have to pay attention to the cues that you have carefully laid out in such a way that the reader experiences vents at the same pace as, and from the same perspective as, the characters in the story.

Richard knew his day wasn't going too well when he led the President of the United States into a lab full of rampaging zombies.

The above is selective telling. A story that starts out like this leaves out so many details that, even if we know what's going to happen in the scene, we might still keep reading in order to learn who Richard is and what sort of context exists for a story that treats such an event so casually. So there's plenty of room left to show.

"If you'll step this way, Mr. President, we'll visit Dr. Carter's Zombie Treatment Center," said Richard grandly. "Hmm... the guard seems to have stepped away for a minute, but it looks like the door is unlocked. Excuse me, Dr. Carter? Dr. Carter! What happened to your face? Hey! Get him off me! Aauugghh!"

The above would really only work for a comic story, but as you can see, Richard's speech conveys all the information the reader needs to know.  If in a future scene we see a different person being sworn in as President, we don't need to be TOLD that the zombie attack was fatal.

Telling (with increasing detail):

  • The musicians surprised their audience.
  • The musicians surprised their audience by doing a lot of unexpected and zany things.
  • A talented pair of long-haired piano players lost no opportunity to perform antics designed to baffle and surprise the delighted audience.

In each case above, the author is simply reporting that the audience was surprised; there's nothing here to surprise the reader. What, exactly, are some of the surprising things the musicians did?

See also "Show, Don't (Just) Tell"

WB 1-3 Showing.doc

To Redo This Assignment

WB 1-3a Showing.doc


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I should have this exercise online by tonight (Saturday). I'll push the deadline back to 5pm Monday to make up for the delay. --DGJ

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