I wrote a number of guest posts for the When Are You? blog tour, and have a couple left over. Here’s one on the topic of Show & Tell, incorporating decisions I made while writing that story. I’ve expanded on a few bits since I first wrote it, but it makes all the same points as the original version.
In common everyday usage, and according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary online, the words “show” and “tell” have a long list of definitions. So it’s easy enough for the waters to get muddied when applying them to a story. All books “tell” a story, but what do the terms really mean in creative writing?
They seem to be used in different ways by different people. I’m not sure what’s technically right or wrong, but this is how I see it:
Most of the time, I think of show vs. tell on a phrasing level. To me, this is an example of “telling”:
John stood awkwardly in the open doorway, and Adam was instantly peeved.
And this is “telling” with a bonus side order of filtering:
Adam saw John standing awkwardly in his open doorway and was instantly peeved.
Here is one of a countless number of ways to “show” that action, instead:
John stood in the open doorway gnawing his lower lip. He kicked at a pebble, and his gaze landed briefly on Adam before dropping to the ground. Adam clenched his fists as heat suffused his face.
Personally, I’d rather see that John is being awkward and that Adam is peeved than be simply told those facts. Being told how someone’s feeling doesn’t do it for me. Like with all things, though, sometimes a nice balance between the two works best, but I lean heavily toward preferring to show the reader.
Here’s a pivotal scene told from Leo’s POV in When Are You?:
They reached the quivering wall of air and rushed through it to the sound of the old woman on the bench screaming as their shoes found purchase on the park’s pervious rubber pathway, and they surged forward…then tumbled headlong onto the surface as the counterweight they’d been pulling vanished.
Leo grunted as his forearms scraped along the path. He stared uncomprehendingly at the stroller’s handlebar, still clutched in one hand. The handlebar and about six inches of pole on either side ending with a clean cut.
Leo gaped, unblinking and breathing heavily, at the path behind them. The wavering air…it was gone. The air was normal.
The woman hadn’t stopped screaming. Vinnie was panting—hyperventilating?—and snatching at bits of light green fabric that matched the stroller’s canopy.
“Oscar?” Leo’s voice came out in a squeak. Louder, he repeated, “Oscar?” He sat up and scanned the area. An unrelenting hand clutched his heart. Squeezed it. Squelched it. Liquified it. Oscar was gone. The entire stroller, other than the handlebar, was…gone.
Leo shoved his sunglasses to the top of his head. His breath caught in his throat, and he looked around again. He shouted, “Oscar!”
“No, no, no, no…” Vinnie chanted as he stumbled to his feet and spun around, fruitlessly looking everywhere…anywhere. He snatched another bit of green fabric floating on the air. “No, no, no, no…this isn’t happening.”
“Oscar!” Leo yelled again. His stomach lurched, threatening to heave because their actions were pointless. Wherever they’d been, that’s where Oscar still was. The portal had snapped shut, cutting them off, but every cell in Leo’s body screamed in denial of this reality. “Oscaaaaar!”
The woman stopped shrieking but sucked in rattling breaths behind her hands that now covered her face. Behind them on the path, voices broke through Leo’s focus.
“Oh, my God, did you see that?”
“What the hell just happened?”
“They just disappeared…into…thin air.”
“What happened to the kid?”
“Somebody call 9-1-1!”
In the field, the people who’d been kicking soccer balls had stilled and were staring, wide-eyed.
Vinnie crumpled to the ground, hugged his knees to his chest, bits of green fabric clutched in his hands, and rocked. Leo barely heard Vinnie’s words as they tore his heart in two. “No, no, no, no…”
Leo doubled over and retched. He’d failed Oscar. He’d failed Vinnie. He’d failed. Utterly and completely failed.
He hadn’t cried since middle school, but a garbled sob escaped him now. He dragged a forearm across his mouth and turned back toward where the wavy air had been. “Oscaaaaar!”
“Where did it go?” Vinnie choked on a rattling sob of his own. “Where did it go? We’ve got to go back and get him! Where did it go?”
Leo lifted his face to the sky. “Oscaaaaar!”
The faintest of echoes was the only answer to Leo’s agonized plea.
I hope that scene conveys—“shows”—the depth of feeling that both Leo and Vinnie are feeling as they realize they’ve been cut off from their young son without resorting to “telling” the reader something like: Leo was gutted, or Leo couldn’t deal with the horror, or Leo could see Vinnie’s pain in the way he was curled up on the ground.
But what else might show vs tell mean in creative writing? Many use those words when talking about the story level rather than phrasing. Writers have to make plenty of decisions in the story asking themselves “does this scene/paragraph/line advance the story?” As in, does it add real value to the story, or is it filler that might make the reader’s eyes glaze over and start skimming to get to something truly pertinent to the story?
At the phrasing level, it’s pretty clear that it’s usually better to mostly show the action so the reader can feel the emotions along with the characters rather than tell the reader what the characters are feeling. Most of the time, showing is objectively the better path.
But at the story level, there is no set ratio of show/tell regarding what’s a good or bad balance. It’s subjective and very much depends on the story’s needs. Opinions vary, and this is why I usually avoid using the terms “show” and “tell” when talking about detailing out scenes vs. tightening them to a brief explanation (if needed at all), because we are conditioned to think show=good and tell=bad, so I feel that using those words can be misleading because it’s not at all cut and dried at the story level. I’m more likely to think of this balance in terms of pacing or story tightness.
At the story level, too much “show” can be a bad thing. Is creating an entire scene/chapter to make a minor point or to fill in a time gap worth it? Or should that point be conveyed by a few inserted paragraphs? Or maybe combine several points into a single scene/chapter rather than allocating separate ones to each and every point. I think we can all agree that not every moment of time that passes in a story needs to be detailed, but deciding which do or don’t is more of a gray area. Mostly, it depends on the story and the points, and, of course, the author’s personal preferences of what they would rather see if they were the reader.
Ten authors would handle the same situation ten different ways, and that’s fabulous. No doubt each of those versions would be at least one person’s favorite if they were all presented to a panel of a hundred readers.
Me? I lean toward preferring a tight story. As a reader, once I’ve made it past the wow-this-blurb-is-interesting stage, then the gee-I-like-this-author’s-writing-style stage after reading the sample, and actually purchase a book, then filler scenes are the number one reason that’ll land that book in my DNF pile. I’m allergic to them.
So, I try to avoid including scenes that don’t add real value to the story, but I also take a hard look at things that I might’ve summarized too easily. After I complete a first draft, I often end up deleting/combining/adding scenes (or even entire chapters) to get the balance right. And by “right” I mean to what I’d personally like to see if I were reading it, which might or might not align with another’s preference.
As it turns out, I ended up adding quite a bit in the way of lines/scenes/chapters to When Are You? after completing the first draft. Originally, the story started with what is now “chapter two” being labeled as a “prologue.” That chapter is important to detail out (“show”) the information that Leo and Vinnie will use to figure out what’s going on when everything hits the fan a few years later, rather than summarizing/tightening (“telling”) the info only as Leo and Vinnie’s memories (or as flashbacks) if I’d started the story with their personal tragedy.
The meet-cute that now begins the story as “chapter one” didn’t exist in the first draft, but I know many readers feel like they’re missing something in “established couple” stories. When Are You? is really an established couple story, with the meat of the story happening once they’ve been together for eight-plus years and have a young child.
But, Leo and Vinnie’s love for one another and for their son, Oscar, plays a critical role in their decision-making process. Enough so that I felt it was important to add a few highlights from their early years to get the reader invested in them and to better understand their motivations. So I added their meet-cute and another brief scene from their early years to preemptively assuage potential reader concerns about not knowing how they’d met, and, more importantly, to introduce not only the main characters, but several important side characters.
Thus, since the meat of the story doesn’t begin until they’ve been together for more than eight years, these additions mean there are some large time gaps in the couple’s story-timeline. First, Leo and Vinnie are introduced, then two years later their engagement is announced to Leo’s parents (who will factor into the story again later), then six months later we see that they’ve married, have moved cross-country, and we get a very pertinent encounter with an archeologist who will become critical to solving the mystery of Oscar’s disappearance.
Otherwise, since the story is all about what happens approximately six years after that encounter, the balance of what we are left to assume is their basically uneventful, non-story-worthy early years, while potentially mildly interesting, would not have advanced this time-travel story. This is a case where I felt that “showing” wide swaths of their backstory would have been, IMHO, eye-glazing filler, and brief “tells” of additional minor bits of their history which might have some pertinence to the story was the better way to go.
In short, I try not to conflate “things people might like to see” with “things that genuinely belong in the book because they add something worthwhile and/or advance the story.” I don’t get too stressed out by deleting scenes. If I like a scene (or the idea of a scene I haven’t yet written), but recognize that it doesn’t truly advance the story or screws with the pacing, I can still salvage it by posting it as a bonus scene on my website even if it didn’t belong in the book. Win-win. The story remains tight, and readers who would like more can find the extras they crave.
Many (most) of my bonus scenes are written well after the fact using prompt words. Occasionally I’ll write one and regret that I hadn’t thought of that sooner, because it would have incorporated well into the story. Alas.
Anyway, you can find my treasure trove of bonus scenes on my website, here: https://authoraddisonalbright.com/free-stuff/bonus-scenes/
I’ve just written the first bonus scene for When Are You? It’s actually an alternate POV scene, retelling the entire meet-cute first chapter from Leo’s POV instead of Vinnie’s. Eventually it’ll show up on my website in the link, above, but if you want an earlier look at it, sign up for my newsletter before I send out the April edition (probably Tuesday the 7th or Wednesday the 8th), because it’ll be exclusively for newsletter subscribers for the first month or so. As an extra bonus, subscribers have the option to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway each month for a chance to win their choice of my ebooks.