Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Show and Tell

Lots of people write about "Show vs Tell". It's a good concept to be aware of, but it should be and in the phrase, not vs.

What do I mean?

Well, let's start with being honest. If you write prose, it's all tell. Except for little visual tricks, illustrations, doodles, perhaps visual page layouts when you are describing a sign, or other modifications of form- except for those, everything you are doing is telling.

Everything is telling.

It isn't so in movies, where almost everything should be visual, but in prose, everything is telling. Even when you go so far towards subtle detail as Raymond Chandler's "A line showed on her jaw", you are still just telling about the line on the jaw. Okay, Chandler didn't tell that she was angry, he told a detail that allows the reader to infer two levels - that her jaw muscle was tightening, and that it was anger that made it happen.

But it's all tell.

The question is, what level of detail are you telling? Is the level of detail appropriate to your story and your audience?

Look at the following sentence, and then decide whether it is showing or telling.

John loved Marsha.


If you've fallen for the "Show vs Tell" fad, you probably said "tell."


The correct answer depends upon context. It is impossible to know without seeing the scene and the surrounding phrasing. Look at it in the following paragraph:

John loved Marsha. John's brother Abel loved Grace. Marsha loved Abel, but had an obvious liking for Grace as well. And then there was Prudence, who thought her brothers would be better off staying away from the brothel completely.

In this case, "John loved Marsha" is a detail regarding the current emotional situation in the family. If you buy the "show vs tell" concept, it is a "show" statement.

Really, any sentence or detail can be a "tell" at one level, while it is a "show" at the next higher hierarchical level. The proper question is, what layer of detail is appropriate to the audience and the purpose of the scene?

More later.

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