Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Show or Tell: How Do You Know?

It's amazing how a simple conversation can spark a line of thought. That happened with friend, writer and multiple Hemingway style award-winner Jack Schmidt. He posed a writing question we all consider: Is it always better to show than tell?

The usual answer, that showing is better, is a point made so often it has lost its meaning. For clarification, here are two examples:
  • Stabler stared at the money on the desk. It was clear from his bemused expression there was some interest. [not bad]
  • Stabler gaped at the stack of twenties, then wiped his mouth. He looked at me. "What do you want me to do?" [better]
Generally, showing is better because the writer uses detail and more precise language, rendering him or her invisible and making the reader's experience more satisfying. Think of classes where the instructor used the inductive approach instead of lecturing for an hour. As in the above example, showing works best in setting scenes, creating dialogue and moving the plot along through the characters' eyes, preferably all at once.

But one great point made in a recent post is that in writing, rules are made to be broken. Telling usually works better than showing when the writer must convey a lot of information (e.g., back story) in a short amount of space. This can be done through devices like flashback, but sometimes it's best to just say Cal Jones was in prison instead of showing him there.

Ultimately, the test question is: Which technique serves the story best at that particular point?

Let me know how "show versus tell" works for you.


Essay Writer said...

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IM said...

I would that writer has tougher job to portray and get it understood to its readers because he cannot use color or real image to show what he has in mind.

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Anonymous said...

This is like explaining your gestures through a piece of art. Some people also call it the way to think different.

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Adele Annesi said...

Great comments, everyone, thanks! How true it is that ideas can come from unexpected sources.

As to portraying without the use of color, etc., aside from the fact that some of the most evocative pieces of art and photography are "black and white," the great challenge and joy for the writer is exactly to paint images using words. As a writing prompt, it might be helpful to visit a gallery, select a piece, preferably modern or post-modern, and describe it - without using color words, like red or yellow. Let me know how it goes. Use the post by "Anonymous" as an incentive to think "different"

Like that comment about "thinking different."

Unknown said...

Or you can also say that think out of the box, which turned an unknown man to Leonardo Da Vinci.

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Good timing, essay writer, I'm just working on a craft essay at the moment - a new writing style for me.