Show versus Tell (a few good links and lots of personal confusion)

PCW had a post on Sunday that discussed the age-old wisdom, “show, don’t tell,” and I have a link I’ve been sitting on for a while from terribleminds about the same subject, so I figured it was a good time to share them.

First, Patricia C. Wrede: Show vs. Tell

Second, terribleminds: A Long Look at “Show, Don’t Tell”

Both posts make the same general point – it’s sometimes ok to tell.  Really.  It truly is.  You don’t have to show everything.  And, PCW provides a great example in her post of how there is more than one way to “show” something.

Think about the story you’re trying to write – what is its purpose?  What are you trying to share with this story?  What does the reader need to know to experience your story?  How best can you accomplish that?

I have to confess here that I sometimes get confused between high-level showing and telling.  (Actually, I’ve never given it much thought, but now that I do, I’m confused between the two.)

I’m still making my way through The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. and in Chapter 14 she covers about six weeks of activity for one character.  I was going to cite it as a good example of where an author uses telling to provide crucial information without bogging down in a story that isn’t essential to the story the book is meant to tell.

But, reading through it, I think now that it may well be a high-level form of showing.  It’s written in first-person and, as mentioned in the terribleminds post, “Characters speaking in their own voice are, in a way, showing.”

I don’t know.  (Makes for a useful post, doesn’t it?)  I just skimmed the first two paragraphs and they’re a description of what the character did.  So maybe it’s telling?  Or maybe the distinction between the two is not so black and white?

Here’s the first few sentences for the curious:

“When Obsle and Yegey both left town, and Slose’s doorkeeper refused me entrance, I knew it was time to turn to my enemies, for there was no more good in my friends.  I went to Commissioner Shusgis, and blackmailed him.  Lacking sufficient cash to buy him with, I had to spend my reputation.”

I think the key takeaway for any of these writing lessons is that your story needs to work.  As I mentioned the other day, you don’t need to know what something is called to write well.  It helps.  (And trust me, it’s going to drive me nuts for the next few days that I can’t decide for sure if that passage is show or tell.  I see many Internet searches and book skimmings in my future…)

I think this is also a perfect opportunity to harp on the idea that anyone who wants to be a writer should read.  Tons.  Read and read and read and read.  Because if you read enough you will see what works and what doesn’t work even if you can’t name it.  (Like I can’t right now.)

Chapter 14 worked.  I’m now dying to go dig up a book I put in storage a few months ago where a similar “passage of time” chapter failed miserably.  That one covered five years or so, but it was somehow boring.  And now I want to know why.  I want to hold that chapter up next to this one and figure out what that author did versus what Le Guin did.  Maybe because the other book was third-person it was much more flat than this passage?  Or maybe because what happened in the other book was absolutely irrelevant and could have been skipped entirely?

I don’t know.  I really don’t.

I HATE not knowing things!  Grrr.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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1 Response to Show versus Tell (a few good links and lots of personal confusion)

  1. I need to think about these things so much! Reading this, a whole can of worms was opened for me. But they are gummy worms, luckily. And delicious. I just need to eat them slowly and not get a headache 🙂

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