Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It
This post was first shared on Let the Words Flow, but I recently rediscovered it and decided to expound a bit more on the infamous show don't tell topic.
Let's start with the obvious: telling is considered bad. Everyone knows this, right? Except...do we all know why telling is so "evil"?
Telling is considered "bad" because it packs less punch and doesn't pull readers in.
For example, if someone tells me their finger really hurts, I don’t necessarily believe them. I probably won’t even care that much because we’re all used to hearing complaints, and so whining carries no weight. But if you showme your finger’s oozing gash and your wince, I know it hurts—and suddenly I care. (I also think you should got to the hospital and get stitches. For real, that looks infected.)
But even showing can get complicated. Personally, I like to think of showing as happening on multiple scales—macro, micro. I also like to think of it in its various forms—showing plot versus showing character or showing setting, etc.
Let’s break this down. (Cue awesome hip-hop music now.)
Macro-showing involves looking at the entire story. I like to think of it as a gut-instinct that something is "right". You know Plot Point A is a big deal because everything you've seen so far has SHOWN you.
In other words, if you break down the whole so plot, the entire character arc, the complete world-building setting, etc., you would have all these various elements working together to show the story's impact.
Example: In Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back after Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father, no one has to tell me that things will never be the same again. The plot has just majorly shifted, and based on the story so far, I know this is a Very Big Deal. I’ve been shown why this matters and why it will change the course of future events.
For Luke in Star Wars: A New Hope, we see the shift in his character as he goes from an adventure-seeking farm boy to a Force-fueled, Rebel soldier. Again, no one has to tell me he has transformed because I’ve seen the progression.
But...if I were to just read a synopsis of Star Wars: A New Hope, I wouldn't feel the weight of these big story twists. All I would know is that someone told me Luke's discovery of the Force was a Big Deal, but I wouldn't feel the significance deep in my gut. Make sense?
Of course, to get that macro-showing in full-force, we need to have all our micro-showing finely tuned...
This is the standard show we think of in show vs. tell. Micro-showing os the tiny details that draw a scene for us. This is when we feel the water clinging to us and the mosquito’s bite; when we hear the cicadas and distant thunder; when we see the orange sky and low clouds. We picture the scene without being told, “It was a hot summer evening.”
But it’s more than setting—we have to show our plot and characters. We don’t tell the reader our heroine behaves like a child; we show her throwing a temper tantrum when she gets a bad grade. We don’t tell the reader that time is running out; we show the ticking bomb and increase the characters’ desperation.
Here’s an amazing article by Chuck Palahniuk that discusses the removal of “thought” (Filter words! Something I’ve ranted...er...talked about before.). Palahnuik really delves into the small-scale showing—it’s a must read!
One thing I find writers (myself included) have a lot of trouble with is showing emotion instead of telling. This is honestly a hard lesson to learn--something that takes practice more than anything else. And reading. I find lots of reading will really help you get a handle on showing emotion. The key to is really dig into your character and let their voice shine. Don't just give us surface reactions—"Tears poured down my face"—but the gut-level hurt of that character. We don't just want the actions; we want the thoughts—and we also want that particular character's voice. This is important! Telling is lifeless—anyone could be speaking it—but showing is unique to that storyteller.
Tears poured down my face
My mother was dead, and I couldn't stop crying. She'd died three days ago, yet it hadn't felt real until I discovered her letter.
Tears splattered on Mom's old desk—the desk she'd sat at my entire childhood. Now it was stained with my grief. They were everywhere—the tears. Clinging to my eyelashes, sliding in my mouth, and smearing her final pen strokes.
I didn't care. I couldn't care. My mother was dead. She was never coming back. I would never, ever see her again for as long as I lived, and right now, all I saw before me was a gaping eternity without her. All I wanted to do was scream—shriek my rage at the ceiling. At this letter. At her.
How dare she die.
But I couldn't even manage a tiny shout. My chest ached; my abs were sore; my eyes burned. Yet still I sobbed. And sobbed. The three days since she had died hadn't felt real until now. Until this letter.
Can you tell a difference between the two passages? Does one pack more punch for you?
When Telling Is Important
There are, of course, times when you want to tell instead of show. A few instances:
Summary: We don’t always want a play-by-play of what the protagonist is doing. For example, it’s better to tell us: “He donned his uniform” than “He pulled on his undershirt, buttoned up his uniform shirt, tugged on his pants..."
Transitions: When time has passed between a scene/chapter, it’s good to debrief us on what happened in between and set the stage for the new scene. You can simply tell us that necessary information.
Tough or Unreliable Characters: If a character is too tough to cry (Julie pointed out Katniss from The Hunger Games), then sometimes we have to be told she’s sad—otherwise, we won’t pick up on it. If a character is unreliable or lying, sometimes we have to be told the truth (but shown the lie).
To emphasize something we’ve seen: This is tricky because you HAVE to make sure your character/plot is consistent with what’s being told (insert critique partner here!). Essentially, you have a character comment on something we’ve seen—you tell us through this character something we already know to be true. For example, whenever a hero thinks about how beautiful a heroine is, this would be telling—and it only works if we’ve already been shown how lovely she is through his eyes. In that instance, we’re already convinced he really feels this way, and he’s simply confirming it.
To keep pacing smooth: Sometimes it’s not okay to give us a detailed description of a character’s face/movement/feeling—maybe it bogs the dialogue down or slows the action. As such, it’s okay to simply tell us what happened (ex: “He gave a mocking grin” instead of “His lip quirked slightly, and a single eyebrow rose high”). You have to find a good balance between telling/showing in these cases. Too much telling, and you’re a sloppy writer. Not enough, and you’re slowing your scene.
I’m sure there are more examples I’m missing! When do you think telling is necessary? And how about showing—can you think of any other micro/macro examples?