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6-4 Show Versus Tell Issues

(c) 2010 Mona Leeson Vanek

Show Versus Tell Issues

There are many ways of managing show versus tell issues. The more you can collect, the more options you can choose from. Two writers on Internet Workshop Writing list, Edita and Laura, shared these insights.

Edita A. Petrick provided an excellent explanation and included vivid examples. She says, "In real life, "show" comes through what we say to one another. The words we use and the tone of voice in which these are delivered. The same holds for fiction. A fictional character is best "characterized/shown" by what he/she says, how they say it and in what circumstances. Description (or tell) is then used to enhance the already established the mood/atmosphere that was set through the dialogue. It's perfectly all right to "tell" from the pov-character's view the results of any given scene that is set via dialogue. And then there is an opportunity to go into "internalization" of what the character feels and thinks ("show" the reader) about the visual effects of the conversation.

"Attitudes and word-choices often reveal ages, sex, economic situation and education of characters without the writer having to lapse into physical description. It's the "words" the writer gives his characters to speak that reveal who and what he is, far more than any descriptive verbiage that features in long expository passages.

"Show" your characters with what they say, how they say it and choose the words that carry the "tone and tune" of the message."

Study Edita's excellent examples, derived from a couple traveling in a car. (Then improve your show vs tell techniques by accepting her challenge.)

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Again?" he asked.
The single word of the male gives you insight into the type of man he is. Not very compassionate or solicitous. He is fixed on driving and what he responds with shows that he has little sympathy for his female companion. The single-word also suggests harsh tone of voice - it's how it would come out in real life. He is not concerned with her discomfort or wants to know its nature. He just feels inconvenienced and annoyed. Not the kind of man you'd like to have as a marriage partner, now, is he? But consider how the scene would evolve if the woman was indeed married to this hard-edged, unsympathetic and cold man?

Now, what does it tell you about the man if the dialogue went like this:

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
 He glanced at her. "Are you all right, honey?"
He is compassionate and his first reactive thought is for her well-being. But he's also calm, level-headed and would be able to deal with anything that springs up as a conflict with competence - he cares for his female companion and worries about her welfare but a hint of problem he perceives does not rattle him...he's ready to deal with anything that comes up.

What does it tell you if it goes like this:

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
 He groaned. "Jesus, that's the third time in fifteen minutes. What's the matter with you for God's sake?"
The man is a jittery, over-reactive character, easily spooked and with overblown imagination that's rooted in negative thoughts. His pity is first for himself and then for others. He's selfish. No matter how little the problem at the onset, he already sees it looming as something insurmountable. He "imagines" disasters every step of the way and fears them - he is insecure and doesn't trust himself to be able to deal with complications. His overblown imagination works against him. You'd not want to have this man accompany you to any emergency hospital reception. They'd have to attend him first.

Now, what does it tell you about this man's character:

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
 He was silent for a long time then asked, "Could it wait until we get to the Bakersfield exit?"
The man is a cool, calculating cookie. He is driven by logic and purpose. Nothing else. His characteristics would most likely drive his choice of profession -- he will always put his career ahead of his family if he has any.

Now, guess from the following dialogue responses what kind of character the male driver is, how old he is and what could be his profession, what's his primary concern, and who he is:
"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Aw, come on, you gonna make me late for the game and the coach will bench me."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"You do this to me all the time, just when I find my spot in the left hand lane."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Sure thing, sweetheart, but you're leaving your cell phone and your credit cards in the car."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Well, what do you know? I have bladder problems too. We'll make it into a loving couple outing."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Yes, ma'am."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"As you wish, madam."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"Sure but you know we're already late for the meeting."

"Take the next exit. I need to go to washroom," she said.
"No problem. We can do this all night long."
From each of these replies, you could write a paragraph-long sketch of the man's character, profession, his relationship/relativity to the female passenger and even guess at his appearance. Readers relate to situations that such words/replies establish and many tend to fill in their own physical perceptions of the character. That's why I said it's almost immaterial to go into long physical description of any given person.

A teenager is not going to reply to me: "As you wish, madam." So I, as a reader will have long established my physical (visual) image of any man who actually says that. And it works in writer's favor if he lets his reader make-up the physical characteristics of any character because that will bring that character that much closer to the reader. Everyone knows at least one sarcastic bastard who'll say "No problem. We can do this all night long." And everyone will have in their work background a colleague who'll be accommodating" but will immediately seek to lay the blame for running late on you, absolving HIM of any faults.

"Show" is far more "in" the dialogue than in any metaphorical/comparative way of describing what your characters feel or what they're like. And when you continue the established dialogue-set characterizations into that protagonist's internal thoughts and opinions, then you're very solid in making that character come alive for the reader.

Descriptive and expository should be reserved for "vistas" -- and those things that the reader needs to "experience" through the characters' eyes. For example if your character is "overwhelmed" upon his arrival at some busy airport (it's his first time there) then you "show" such state of being overwhelmed by describing what MAKES HIM overwhelmed - describing imagery and action of bustling crowds, etc. And then you round it off by having him say or do something that will confirm his overwhelmed state of mind.

Hope this sheds some light on that cyclical debate of 'show versus tell' -- best regards, Edita. (Author of "Cold Scheme" and "The Cracked Shadow.")

Laura, another professional writer, also made an important point. She says, "Like learning a big vocabulary - one should cultivate a big collection of "possible effects" by paying attention to how other authors get their effects.

"The only way to really learn how and when to show vs tell is to gather up your own "personal favorite" writers - preferably a wide and varied collection - and really study how their stories operate. Pay attention to indirect references that convey mood or suggest information. Watch for metaphors, setting, the reactions of characters, odd speech patterns, "tone of voice", non sequiturs, repetition, contrast/juxtaposition, etc. Pay attention to how the actions of the characters - and the verbs used to describe those actions themselves reveal a great deal about what's really going on.

"Take note of anything unexpected that makes you see what's 'really' going on. Try to track down every way the author has of revealing information. These sorts of clues and hints are almost always better than clunky devices like his face turning red or her breath coming out in gasps. Most direct ways of "showing" emotion - that is, describing what a person supposedly looks like while they are experiencing emotion - always strike me as sounding very cliché.

"Also do not neglect the other senses. If you want your character to be seen as sour, it might be appropriate to drag in a sour taste or nasty smell, or a contrasting opposite. Laura is currently working on a trilogy of fantasy novels.

Also, you'll find one of the best brief dissertations on "point of view" at:

Chapter 13 - Genre Writing and Writing for Children:

Next: 6-5, Song Lyrics, Fair Use and Trademarks:

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