Monday, January 21, 2013

Show Versus Tell Part 3

Show Versus Tell

Part 3: Frankensteining It

Warning: This post contains questionably explicit quoted material that may not be suitable for everyone.

We've gone over how to turn Tell into Show and the importance of Telling. Now let's look at how authors stitch them together in some contemporary New York Times Notable Books and Bestsellers.

'My suffering left me sad and gloomy.
Academic study and the steady, mindful practice of religion slowly brought me back to life.' – Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Martel opens Chapter One of his novel-turned-movie with a Telling statement, followed by a narrative summary chronicling the protagonist's university experience.

Why use a Tell in this instance?

The Telling lines are necessary because they present information the audience must know, the protagonist's state of mind, in order to interpret the significance of the sloths, the swimming pool, the ocean, the ship, the orangutan, the tiger.

In essence, the novel is a map and the Telling opening is the legend. Without it, we could stumblingly navigate from point A to point B. With it, we see the riches and richness of the story as a whole.

'I shrugged. "I've thought about it. But I'm not sure it's such a great idea."
Laura looked puzzled. "But you and Ruth, you were so close."
"Yeah, I suppose so. But like with you, Laura. She and I weren't such great friends by the end."' – Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Here, the importance of Telling dovetails with Dialogue Beats maintaining Pace and Tension. In other words, consider how this segment would change if we turned this into a 

Laura looked puzzled.

How do you know?

Because her brows drew together, her eyes narrowed, her lips pursed and she was silent for a moment before she said –

This Show drags the Pace by drawing the reader's focus to Laura's brows, eyes, lips, and the silence, when what the characters are saying (revealing through dialogue) is far more important. If Ishiguro had wanted to open that line to speculation and different interpretations, a Show would have been appropriate.

But the audience must know that how the protagonist perceived her own relationship with Ruth is different from how other people perceived it.

That Tell, Laura looked puzzled, emphasizes what Laura says next, and sets up that dialogue line to be interpreted in a specific way.

Lastly, let's take a look at The Namesake.
It’s written in Omni 3rd, Present Tense, with years condensed into distant Telling summaries, and key minutes stretched out with Showing details.

One example that stands out is how Lahiri handles the protagonist's sex life.

'It is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party at Ezra Stiles, with a girl wearing a plaid woolen skirt and combat boots and mustard tights.' – Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake.

Why Tell this, when loss of virginity is usually a significant coming-of-age moment?

Consider what we've covered about Telling: it imparts necessary information that the author wishes to convey with few or little interpretation. Here, it's a simple fact: Nikhil loses his virginity. In context, it's a statement hidden in an entire paragraph of new college experiences, as if it's a chore to check off on a list. Did we interpret this the way the author wanted?

A few pages later, we find:

'He recalled nothing from that episode, only being thankful, afterward, that he was no longer a virgin.' - Lahiri, The Namesake.

And there's Lahiri emphasizing what we already got from her Telling statement, just to be sure, because the next scene, with a different girl, is:

'He kisses them, kisses the moles scattered on her stomach as she arcs gently toward him, feels her hands on his head and then on his shoulders, guiding him between her parted legs.' - Lahiri, The Namesake

By Telling first, we have something to compare this Show scene to, and can interpret this scene as far more important to the protagonist than the loss of his virginity. This is the scene he wants to experience and remember, therefore this is the scene Lahiri Shows and slows with Details.

In your WIP (especially if you're trying to get under a word count!) find and condense tertiary showing scenes into narrative summary or key Telling statements.
Then, find and expand (with specific and unique Details!) scenes which would benefit from multiple interpretations. Like scenes that are:
1. Important to your main character(s).
2. Important to your plot.
3. Important to your themes.

Happy revising,
Coming up: 
I will be on vacation for the next two weeks. Then:
Dialogue Tags
Jay Groce
Robert Bevan

Sources for this post:
Life of Pi by Yann Martel, 2001.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, 2003.
Photos from and linked to IMDB.


  1. That's very interesting. I've never really understood the show/tell thing, and I feel like the correct balance is an entirely subjective endeavour. What the writer wants to say versus what the reader "hears".

  2. Hey DA,

    I've been thinking about your comment for a while now, and you have a good point about subjectivity.
    The correct balance *is* a subjective endeavor, but I personally wouldn't say "entirely," since at some point, the goal of writing something down is to be understood.

    Otherwise it's just... *ahem*... doing something in the dark.

    Then your comment made me start thinking of a *purely* subjective work. How subjective? Is there a point at which my interpretation is so out there, I'm lost in the weeds, I'm not even wrong, I've broken through universal planes of existence...?

    Then I started thinking about ... bah, I'll tell you about it some other time!