In this post, we will be exploring the “Show don’t tell” technique used in storytelling. Before doing so, we need to examine the basic concepts of Showing and Telling individually. Learning the difference between the two, or when to use one rather than the other, is a fundamental necessity for writers, as they are cornerstones of writing.
the five senses
The principle behind Showing is narrating in a detailed fashion. This technique assists the reader to perceive the story through the use of actions, thoughts, senses, and feelings, instead of simply “seeing” it. Showing helps break the pace of the narrative by slowing down the action. By doing so, the author can better control the mood of the story, either creating tension or a sense of relaxation. It also bring awareness to certain aspects of the story by accentuating features with vivid descriptions and focusing the reader's attention on certain key elements. However, too much Showing will bury the reader under an avalanche of details, making the story a chore to read.
The principle behind Telling is communicating facts in a straightforward manner. This technique simply informs the audience by stating what one can see on the surface, otherwise known as stating the obvious. By being to the point, Telling has the advantage of being face paced, which comes in handy when the writer wants to give a sense of urgency to the story or simply move things along. The downside is that Telling lacks any sense of depth, making the text feel flat.
The main differences between Showing and Telling are pacing and depth. A story cannot move at a single speed; at some times it requires fast action, but at some point it will need to slow down. The level of detail is also important, but only when we want to help the reader visualize something. If it is not important, then Telling will be appropriate, if it is something essential to the story, then it is worth Showing in detail.
This brings us to “Show don’t Tell”. The idea behind this technique is to allow the audience to be immersed in the story, giving them a chance to interpret what is going on. By carefully weaving descriptions into the narrative, we let the readers discover parts of the story on their own, adding to their experience, rather than spoon feeding them information. This can be done by helping them visualize elements, being privy to characters thoughts and feelings, or by “feeding” their imagination with other sensations, like smell or sound. As an author, our goal is to find the proper balance when giving readers information, so they can understand the story themselves without boring them with details.
But how does one Show properly? Showing isn’t just a question of throwing a bunch of random details at the reader, bogging them down with tons of visual references, descriptive information and fancy adjectives. Remember my lesson on Chekhov's Gun? It applies here, in the sense that an author should not give certain details if it does not serve a purpose. There must be a point to Showing. It’s purpose is to emphasize other narrative components, such as Theme, Motivation, Setting, Tone, Motif, etc. It helps bring awareness to what the writer wants you to see but may not be openly saying.
To better help understand Showing and Telling, I will demonstrate their contrast using examples.
“John was running down the street, making his way through the mob.”
Our first example is Telling. The information given is pretty basic; who the character is (John), what he is doing (running) and where he is (on a street). Even though the phrase is pretty straightforward, you do get a sense of urgency from this statement. However, in the absence of details, you don’t have an idea of what is truly going on. Furthermore, this phrase by itself feels flat and boring. It’s purpose in a story would mainly be to move the action along.
“John was running down the street as fast as his feet would take him, the sound of his heart pounding in his ears as he was desperately making his way through the crazed mob.”
This example is Showing. With a few extra details, we give the reader the sense that the character is in fear for his life. By adding “as fast as his feet would take him”, we change the mental image from a man who is running, to that of a man who is fleeing. By adding “the sound of his heart pounding in his ears”, the reader is privy to John’s inner feelings, letting them connect with the character. The word “desperately” emphasizes that he is afraid and the word “crazed” gives the impression the mob is actually out to get him. This example therefore successfully demonstrates how Showing helped accentuate the Tone, Motivation and Setting.
That is all for this lesson. I hope I managed to shed some light on “Show don’t tell”. I know I will be walking away with a better grasp on this technique and I’m already looking forward to put it into practice.
Until next time.