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Show versus Tell – Broad Strokes

A popular topic of debate (or criticism) in writing communities is showing versus telling. If you’ve ever worked with a critique group or taken a writing class you’ve come across this. But the situation really isn’t as cut and dry as “always show and never tell” as some would have you believe. So when should a writer show? And when should she tell – if she should at all?

The answer is: it depends. Or at least, my answer is it depends. There is a time and a place for both. Let’s consider the advantages and disadvantages.

For showing, its advantage is that it reveals a character’s actions. Which is good. The story unfolds as if we’re watching a movie or are really there. If a character feels something, like grief, we’re shown the tears welling in her eyes and her chin trembles. A disadvantage is that it can bog a story and pace down with too much minutia.

For telling, its advantage is that it can move quickly through a great deal of uninteresting, yet important, detail. This is also good. It may be important to establish your character taking the subway to work – maybe later in the book your heroine misses her usual train and it has a terrible accident. But we don’t necessarily need all the details of our heroine’s regular commute. Its disadvantage is that it distances the reader from your story, so they don’t see or feel what’s going on.

Please note the key word in the above description is “interesting.”

To determine if you should show or tell ask yourself:
•    Is this moment interesting?
•    Do you want to see it played out like a scene in a movie?
•    Does it reveal something significant about your plot or character or both?

If you said yes to some or all of these questions consider showing it. Action scenes are best shown. The reader wants the excitement of “being there.” Scenes where your characters realize something significant, meet someone important, or have their hearts broken are all examples of scenes that work well when they’re shown. And, for the most part, the majority of your book should be shown.

If nothing in the scene reveals character or moves the plot forward, consider telling it (so we can move on to the interesting parts). For example: if your character gets a bowl from the pantry, chooses rice puffs and milk, pours them into the bowl, and eats, with nothing else going on consider a short summary (or skipping breakfast altogether). She ate breakfast and left for work.

To be blunt, readers don’t really care what your heroine had for breakfast. They care if she walks in to work, has a fight with her boss, and is fired.

Of course, as with all “rules,” these can be broken and there are always exceptions. One examples of an exception is if your heroine’s breakfast becomes significant later in the book, or perhaps the punch line of a joke. Then you’d need the set-up. Although, showing breakfast, while having something else going on would strengthen the scene.

As a writer, you have complete control over what a reader reads or not, and it’s your responsibility to examine your scenes and determine what is best shown and what is best told.


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