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Exercise: Show and tell

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Rhéal Nadeau
Posted on: Sun, 23 Sep 2001
Reposted on: Sun, 22 Sep 2002
Reposted on: Sun, 5 Mar 2006

"Show don't tell" is a basic writing "rule". Usually, it is more effective to show something (an emotion, an action), through actions or direct observations, than simply to tell. This allows the reader to absorb the information more immediately. Showing allows the reader to experience the scene first-hand.

There are exceptions, of course. A piece of information may not be important enough to warrant any extra effort on the writer's or reader's part. Or telling can be used to de-emphasize information - I've seen this done in whodunnits, when the author wanted to play fair and provide information essential to figure out the culprit, but wanted to slide it by the reader's attention.

But in most cases, showing is better than telling, though often harder. This week's exercise is intended to explore the difference between showing and telling.

First, write a short "telling" statement about something: a character's mood, perhaps, or an action. Then, in 300 words or less, write a text showing us that mood, concept, or action.

For example, I could write: "John was afraid, knowing the enemy was closing in on him." Then I would fill in the scene - how did his fear manifest itself, externally or internally? ("Fear" is the label we put on a range of reactions, manifested in a range of ways.) How did he know the enemy was coming? Does he hear sounds, did someone send him a warning, is he just being paranoid? And of course, as part of showing, we'd need to pay attention to the setting - is John crouched under bushes in the forest, knowing a band of men with guns are looking for him, or is he sitting in an office, afraid lawyers are going to come through the door with papers?

This does not have to be an action scene, of course - a routine event, or something more abstract, can also be shown rather than told.

When critiquing, please point out how effectively the text shows the desired information, and how it might be improved. Was the "showing" scene more effective, or in some instances was telling more effective? (It is possible to go overboard in "showing", and lose focus.)

Have fun!

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Thu, 27 Sep 2001

This is a tricky concept, isn't it? I read the submissions, and there's still a lot of telling in the "show" portions of the exercise. A quick way to check is to look for sentences like "she was " or "he felt ". Look for verbs like "seem" or "appear". All of those usually indicate the author is telling rather than showing.

I wish I remembered where I read this, but someone was discussing how in silent movies, everything was showing; even the occasional text thrown up on the screen did little more than confirm what had already been shown.

The example given was a man proposing. The film shows him getting on one knee, offering up a ring, then the words "Will you marry me" appear - but by the time, the viewers would have figured that out. We would then see the woman smile, very happy, clasping her hand, nodding vigourously, followed by the redundant words "Yes, I will!".

So when thinking about "showing", think of it as a silent movie. What exactly do the actors have to do to convey the scene, when they're not able to speak? And don't stop at "the woman was obviously happy" - what makes it obvious that she's happy?

For those who have already submitted, think of your submission in this way; for those who haven't submitted yet, use this concept as a guideline.

Note: next week will be a free-for-all week, so people wishing to continue working on Show Vs Tell will be able to do so.

Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 1 Oct 2001

A good week's work, everyone. I hope the submissions and critiques have helped all of us learn more about showing versus telling, and how showing can be more effective.

This is not an easy topic; the natural tendency is to "tell" the story. And of course, some telling is OK - the trick is to look for opportunities to strengthen the story by doing more showing and less telling.

Why is showing better, in many cases? The old adage is that "a picture is worth a thousand words". The trick is to learn to draw that picture, in fewer words!

There are two reasons telling can break down for the reader. One is that the human brain is better at processing sensory information than abstract knowledge - that's why we present raw data in pictures (charts, graphs, etc) whenever we can. I'm more likely to understand what I see (or touch or otherwise experience) than what I'm told.

The other problem with telling is that it's often not specific enough. There are many ways to be afraid, but few words to describe them. (At the very least, the writer should remember to use the best word for the job: being jittery is definitely not the same same being terrified, or panicked. Even so, those words in themselves only go so far in letting the reader know the situation.)

I'm sure we'll come back and explore this topic again.

Congratulations to everyone who participated this week.


Rhéal Nadeau's wrap-up
Posted on: Mon, 13 Mar 2006

Just a couple of quick comments this week:

  • some critiques mentioned that the "show" version diverged from the "tell" version. This was true, and normal for an exercise like this. A proper "showing" scene will typically reveal more than a "telling" scene.
  • a number of the "showing" scenes still included a fair bit of telling. Be careful in particular about telling us directly what a character is thinking; look out for phrases like "he knew", "she felt", etc. A key question to ask might be: would someone viewing this scene from the outside be able to guess the information being provided?


Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.