Friday, 2 March 2018

Show, not tell.

Show not tell is one of those concepts it can be hard to get to grips with. Inexperienced writers will often be told it’s all ‘tell’ and you need to ‘show’ more, but they are not alone; even experienced writers will slip into telling sometimes.

If you don’t know, ‘showing’ is the description of events which allow the reader to experience the story through the action, words and senses of the character. It’s like a picture in writing; the reader can look at it and work out what’s going on without you having to tell them. Ernest Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory, or the theory of omission, where what is not said is just as important (if not more so) than what is said. You give the clues and allow the issues to emerge.

The whole process of showing allows the reader to engage with the text by expecting them to fill in the blanks and use their brain. You have to respect your reader to do this, to develop their own understanding of the action without detailing everything and laying it all out for them, but generally, this makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

‘Telling’ leaves little room for the imagination. As a reader, it’s boring and often exhausting to plough through pages and pages of narrative summary or description, however beautifully written it may be, and will often be the cause of your reader skipping ahead looking for some action.

Children especially, will not tolerate endless boring pages of you telling them how it is. They have the imagination to fill in the blanks on their own.

If she tells me that one more time, I'll scream, thought Eddie.
But, there are times when telling it how it is, is the right and proper thing to do. If, for example, you wrote a whole novel showing everything, you would have one seriously long narrative to get through. Showing requires more words so telling may cover a greater period of time more succinctly. And also, those between scene moments need to be 'told', to help the story progress and keep the pace. Telling is a legitimate shortcut which will help you and the reader move to the important drama.

Still confused? Here are a couple more posts for further clarity...


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  2. The cultural history of Inter-war Europe is filled with such powerful and influential interpretations of a reality that defeats the human capacity to imagine evil. Take Picasso's Guernica for instance. In June 1937, Picasso finished painting the Modernist classic in response to another April tragedy: the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica during the civil war. It was his anguished creativity reacting to George Steer's eyewitness account of the incident.
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