Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Show vs. show telling

As part of one of my revisions, I’ve gone back to examine a scene in a story to see whether I can get a better effect by having one of the characters recount the events in the scene to another rather than showing them directly. More specifically: rather than showing a fight between a bunch of kids, I’m rewriting the scene to show one of the kids telling his father about the fight later. The difference is in what impact I want the scene to have. The fight itself doesn’t have much tension to begin with; it’s told in flashback anyway, so we know the kid survives and how things turn out with the other kids. The thing I really wanted to give a sense of is the disparity in social standing between our hero and the other kids, and I thought the fight did that well enough. By changing the scene to the kid telling his father, though, I get to show the kid’s perception of the other kids as well as the father’s perception, and as a bonus explore the relationship between the father and his kid, which is something I was trying to bring out more.

Replaying events through a character’s description can be a powerful device, giving you not only the details of the event but revelations about the character in showing what parts he or she chooses to emphasize, gloss over, or leave out. However, it does (of course) rob the scene of any narrative tension (unless, in this case, it’s whether the dad will give his kid a whuppin’ for fighting). It may also rob the scene of critical details, because people in retelling won’t have the narrator’s onmiscient eye, and giving them that eye ends up seeming contrived. “Oh, yeah, Dad, I noticed that their clothes all looked neatly pressed.”

In this case, I think I don’t need all the details (though I’ve already written them and I hate to toss ’em out), and I’d rather show the interaction between the kid and his father. So I hope this will work better.

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6 responses to “Show vs. show telling

  1. NedSanyour May 8, 2006 at 9:39 pm

    Very interesting thing

  2. NedSanyour May 8, 2006 at 9:42 pm

    that you find more power for the kind of story you are telling in the ‘telling’ than in the ‘showing.’ It is interesting, as the whole, ‘Don’t tell me, show me!’ exhortation seems a bit tough when writing. Everything in a book is ‘told’ on some level, and that is the strength of it over movies or comic strips– as you point out, you can get the interior responses to events more easily.

  3. Rikoshi May 8, 2006 at 10:17 pm

    I’ve always inwardly felt that the literary belief that Telling is the Devil’s work was just a little bit of an overreaction. There are some aspects of every story that simply wouldn’t be interesting to show, for instance (particularly many things relating to backstory), and so those things simply have to be told in order for their impact to be had on the story.In this particular case, I think the decision to not show the fight itself is a wise one–you might lose some narrative tension by not showing the fight, as you say, but as you also say, there’s only so much tension to be had when reading a scene when the reader knows the character gets through it (mostly) unscathed. As far as the emotional responsibility to the story goes, it’s certainly permissible to deal with the even in retrospect and instead focus on the aftermath and how that impacts the story.

  4. NedSanyour May 9, 2006 at 4:08 pm

    Great point, rikoshi, on ‘things that wouldn’t be interesting to show.’ And as you say, telling gives some things more impact. It is the shuddering importance which the character puts on things that we want to feel, not the nuts and bolts of a fight.

  5. Tim May 9, 2006 at 9:18 pm

    … and this IS showing, it’s just showing something different: showing the character telling someone about the fight, as opposed to: “He told his father about the fight, leaving out the part where the other kids were all in wheelchairs.” (which would be telling about the character telling his father about the fight).Too often, though, when you show someone telling someone else about an event, it becomes a gimmick and you don’t really learn anything from the telling. It becomes essentially a narrative within your narrative that might as well be told by the author. I want to avoid that kind of “showing telling.”As far as things that should be told rather than shown, I agree. I think things that don’t have an immediate effect on the character arc fall into that category. Backstory, like you say.

  6. growl June 18, 2006 at 7:40 am

    Actually, I think that the narrative within a narrative can also have some value. As you say in your original posting, it allows the reader the opportunity to learn more about the character and about his/her values and priorities.If, for example, after the kid tells his father about the fight, the father turns around and says, “Wait…. isn’t Bobby the one in the wheelchair?” and the narrator then explains, “It was true that Johnny had left out the minor detail that his opponent was disabled. But Bobby had started it, after all, so it was really his own fault. Unfortunately, his father probably wouldn’t agree.”There, the combination of the telling and showing (admittedly in a crude and contrived example) gives us a little more insight into how Johnny’s mind works, and the selective parts of the story that he wants to communicate. It also tells us something, again as you point out in your post, about the relationship between Johnny and his father.Perhaps that’s what you mean about the things that are critical to the character arc, but I haven’t studied writing enough really to know what that means, I think.

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