When to show and when to tell?

Telling vs. Showing

We’ve all heard the writing aphorism, “Show, don’t tell.”

Yes, all the critics have the solution to vague, talky, directive stories and passages. Show, don’t tell!  Don’t tell me Sarah is angry– show her kicking the trashcan over!

It’s great advice. Today’s readers want a more interactive reading experience. They are sophisticated and don’t need to be told how to understand characters or told to start feeling suspense. The writer’s job is to provide an experience where readers can participate emotionally and mentally if not physically.

The trouble is, it’s hard to apply that wisdom in all situations. In fact, “Show, don’t tell” is a great example of telling.

I’d say that would be better perhaps as, “Show, don’t JUST tell.”

Sometimes showing takes way too long and can come off as stagey– after all, we have mere words for a reason. We don’t always just need to go with action. Anyway, a student asked when it’s best to show a character experiencing emotion, and when it’s best to just tell?

My thoughts are– well, both are good and useful, but when it comes to creating an experience for the reader, too much of either might be a problem. Too much telling and the scenes will be thin and didactic. Too much showing and the scenes will get too long, and it will be hard for the reader to sort out what’s important.

I think there’s a reason to choose one over the other sometimes– again, assuming that our aim is to create the most interesting and yet still understandable experience for the reader.

Simple vs. Complex

Try this: If the emotion is simple– (“I’m happy that my best friend is visiting”), go ahead and just “tell”.  The reader doesn’t need too much evidence of how she feels if it’s a predictable feeling. But if you want to convey a more complex emotion (“Oh, good grief, this is all I need, my best friend visiting on top of everything else”), showing might give the reader the more nuanced experience.

Imagine the difference in Sarah’s behavior if she feels happy that her friend is visiting, and if she feels UNhappy about it. Let’s pick a simple scenario– Sarah hearing the doorbell ring and realizing it’s her friend.

Happy Sarah:

Sarah was so happy to realize it was Tracey, she rushed to the door and flung it open. “I’m so glad to see you!” she cried.

Unhappy Sarah:

Sarah couldn’t believe it. On top of everything else, she had to deal with Tracey just showing  up like this. She trudged to the door, took a deep breath, counted to ten, rearranged her features into a smile, and slowly opened the door. Yep, it was Tracey, standing there beaming. Sarah took another deep breath, then forced her own smile, and said, “I’m so happy to see you.”

Notice that showing takes a lot longer. That’s fine for important nuanced moments, but might not be worth it just to narrate something normal and expected.

Showing also involves telling, especially in a character’s point of view. In Unhappy Sarah’s case, she’s telling herself, not the reader particularly, how she feels. Then she tells Tracey… but notice, she LIES. The reader knows she’s lying, and that contrast between the reality and Sarah’s statement SHOWS that Sarah is– well, you figure it out. She’s unhappy about her friend visiting, but doesn’t want to alienate her or hurt her feelings? See how much more nuanced that emotion is.

I’m not saying that showing is more nuanced than telling. I’m saying use showing to convey more nuanced emotion. Use telling with lesser nuance. That will save time, and also then highlight those times where you show– reserving “show” for more complex scenes will “show” that “this is a complex emotion” or “this is nuanced.”

Let’s try another example:

A writer asked me when I thought it was good to TELL the emotion (he was pissed off)

And you don’t have to restrict yourself to the simplest form of telling. Even expected emotions can be “told” in an interesting way, especially in a deeper point of view. “He was pissed off”– and then maybe why or the effect. “He was pissed off. He’d busted his butt getting across town, only to find the restaurant locked up and his date nowhere to be found. He tried the door one more time, but it was still locked, and no one answered when he banged on the window.” That is, express the emotion simply, and show it at work in his action as a consequence– he was pissed off, see, so he BANGED on the window, not just knocked.

Emotion in this case is a catalyst for action. Action isn’t just a way to show emotion. Emotion causes action, and yeah, how the action plays out will depend on the emotion. But there’s nothing wrong with just stating the emotion and then getting on with the scene. Just make the subsequent action consonant with his emotion, and the reader will follow perfectly. Verbs are the action words, but they also carry the emotion, so choose

your verbs precisely to sneak in a bit of emotion. You wouldn’t have a pissed-off man “tapping” on the window, for example. But he’s not FURIOUS, so he doesn’t break the window or kick in the door. It’s all perfectly understandable and easy for the reader to get.The idea really is to make it coherent– emotion and action matching.

But then there’s the #2 type of emotion, where the expressible emotion is masking a deeper, more difficult emotion. So you might have “He was pissed off,” sure, but then the action might actually reflect the hidden emotion. He might be expressing pissed-offness, but really feeling fear and trying to suppress it– maybe the restaurant is owned by Tony Soprano :)– so in that case, he might think He was pissed off… but he might just tap at the window – maybe kind of stand back away from view and tap at the window– and that tapping would indicate that he’s scared underneath, too scared to BANG on the window. That is, the narrative (thought) will express the surface emotion, while his actions will express (reveal) the deeper emotion. The contrast between thought/speech and action is a sophisticated way of showing that he can’t straightforwardly feel and act upon it.

It helps to “feel” with the character and determine whether he’s feeling simply or complexly. 🙂

Normal vs. Abnormal

Another reason to choose either showing or telling is the expectedness of the emotion you want to convey. Above, it would be expected by the reader that Sarah would be happy to see her friend.  I don’t need to describe/show much to the reader because it’s normal and familiar to the reader, who probably generally is also happy to see friends.

On the other hand, if the emotion is not the expected one, if the response is meant to appear abnormal or unpredictable, then you might decide this is  something the reader has to experience (be shown) to fully understand.

There are two kinds of emotions our characters will most likely experience:

  1. Emotions that the character feels straight out, has no real problem acknowledging. These are the ones that you can just “tell” usually, as the character will have no trouble identifying them and thinking/feeling/expressing them.

His little girl up there on the stage, getting the Best Math Student award. Wow. He was so proud!

With the straight-out emotions, telling is often better. If the emotion is right there, if  what’s what he’s feeling, if he’d express it in these terms, why not just say it? “He was proud” is perfectly adequate. You don’t need to invent action just to show him being proud (though of course you can show this as well as tell it—he can clap until his hands are stinging, he’s so proud). Just let him feel the emotion and then go on from there.

2) Emotions that for some reason the character can’t let herself feel straight out, and so will come out in some distorted or filtered or translated way. These are the emotions that require special handling.

People die. Even young girls. Even best friends. Big deal.

This seems to me the perfect situation for a little “showing”. After the character thinks that or says it, what does she do? What action would convey her shoved-down anger, her suppressed shock, her unacknowledged grief? Something hard and destructive, like kicking over the friend’s gravestone?

Something symbolic and irrevocable, like flinging the box with the friend’s letters into the ocean?

In this case, it will be the action that shows the real emotion, and the contrast between that “real” and the “told” emotion would further show the character’s conflict.

So try that when you want to convey emotion. Ask yourself, is it simple or complex? Is it a normal emotional response, or abnormal?

Now what if you don’t have any nuanced scenes of complex or mixed emotions, if your characters are transparent and never lie to themselves or others? Then I’d say the problem isn’t necessarily about the presentation (show and tell), but the problem is in the conceiving. Maybe the characters are too simple, or maybe you’re avoiding complexity and mixed emotions. If so, yes, you can deepen the texture of your scenes by showing more through the character’s movements and actions. But you might also consider deepening your characters, give them mixed emotions, force them into a conflict of values (loyalty vs. truth maybe), give them reasons to lie.

That might not be right for your story, but if you have a lot of “tell” and not much “show,” consider that you can TELL simple things, but you have to SHOW complex things… is your story complex enough?

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