[Skillbook] - Showing
Honestly, it’s probably the former, but for better or worse, here’s an excerpt from my story of becoming an Author:
As I typed my first word of my first story into Word, a blue screen popped up.
“Congratulations,” it read. “You earned the following Status Change: Class – None becomes Class – Author. Class relevant Skills have been added.”
“Coolio,” I thought. “Let me check out my new Skills.”
Another blue box appeared.
Telling – Level 73
Showing – Level 1
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me! Level freaking 1! How can that be? I am the Chosen One, the author who will bring balance to the Force or something. My midichlorians are off the scale! Nothing about my writing can possibly be lower than max level. Every word I write is perfect. Perfect, I tell you!”
Maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but I really did think highly of my skills even as I was just starting my journey. After all, I’m a smart guy, and I’ve been a reader all my life. How could I possibly be less than totally awesome at writing? The first time I took my first chapter to a writing group, I honestly expected them to fawn all over me telling me how good my story was.
Yeah, that’s not quite how it went. Rivers of red ink ran that day.
My first lesson as a writer, one that was hard for me to accept, was that everyone starts out at Level 1. Thinking that I could somehow write a perfect story without going through a learning process was as delusional as thinking I could step on a basketball court and beat Michael Jordan one on one. (I’m old. Think LeBron James if you’re a young whippersnapper.) If I wanted to slay that Level 100 Novel, I had to grind my Skills.
For my next lesson, imagine that Telling is a sword and Showing is an archery set. I was standing at the bottom of a high hill while kobolds slung stones at me. My sword skill was The Awesome. It was all I’d ever been taught in school, all I’d really ever known. I owned a bow and kind of knew the concept of shooting arrows, but honestly, I was more likely to hurt myself by having the string hit my forearm than I was to actually hit one of the kobolds. My natural inclination was to run up the hill, sword bared, taking fire the whole way whether than duck behind a tree and engage at range. Like Anakin, I was brought low trying use my sword to attack someone who held the higher ground.
Putting aside the fact that I still need to really grind my Analogy Creation Skill, I quickly realized that my success as an adventurer depended on developing more tools than just adequate swordplay. I would need to become just as good with a bow as, and ideally even better than, I was with a blade.
Thus I continued my journey, and to help you with yours, I dumped some of the knowledge I gained into the Skillbook below. Hopefully, it will advance you from Showing – Level 1 to at least Showing – Level 1.01.
Thesis Statement: Both Showing and Telling have advantages and disadvantages. Both can be used, and an important key to writing fiction well is determining which to use, and how to use it, in any given situation. The default technique, however, should be Showing.
Let’s say that you, the author, need to convey to the reader that your protagonist, Sara, is hungry.
Method 1. Telling – Sara was hungry.
Writers tend to go through some distinct stages. A lot of new writers Tell because they don’t know any better. Then, they learn that they’re supposed to Show instead, and there’s no one more enthusiastic than a convert.
“No!” they scream. “You can’t Tell. Ever. Show, don’t Tell!”
Any statement that is made that authoritatively tends to turn some people off, and those individuals then strenuously object, leading to tedious debates in online forums. Man, I do not miss my days of being involved in writing forums and getting sucked into those conversation. Yikes!
I used to be in that “No, never!” camp, but my perspective now is that nothing about writing fiction is simple and easy. In general, Showing is more engaging than Telling, but I’ve read pieces that contained mostly Telling that I found extremely compelling. The bottom line is, “If it’s wrong and it works, it’s not wrong.”
However, the whole pedantic thing doesn’t bother me all that much. I think that most new authors desperately need to grind Showing, so trying to write while only Showing is a pretty decent writing exercise. I’m glad I went through that phase because it definitely improved my writing.
The reality, though, is that Telling has some great advantages:
- It’s crystal clear. There is no ambiguity at all. The reader now knows that the protagonist is hungry.
- It’s short. Concise. Tight. Story space is a thing. If Sara’s hunger is only leading her to heading out to a diner for lunch, you probably don’t need to spend a bunch of time on the subject.
Method 2. Simple Showing – Sara’s stomach growled.
As I passed into that slightly less newb phase of writing, this method made me feel like the Writing Ninja. “Bam! Shown!”
Let’s compare and contrast this method’s merits with Method 1:
- It’s less clear than Telling. Sure, people’s stomachs growl when they are hungry, but there are other reasons that a stomach can make such a noise. For example, I remember my first date with the girl who would later become my wife. My stomach growled the whole night because I was so nervous. There is definitely a risk of the reader misunderstanding.
- It generally takes more story space. Okay, in my example, it didn’t, but typically, even Simple Showing has a larger word count than Telling.
- Something about the process of having to interpret the words rather than just read them is believed to be more engaging to readers. I don’t fully understand the why or the how, but this belief matches my experience.
- It’s more trustworthy. Stories are told through narration, and unreliable narrators are a thing. When Telling, the narrator can lack the proper knowledge of the protagonist’s hunger or has a skewed perspective or can outright lie to the reader. Unless some sort of dreaming or illusion or something is involved, actions are reliable.
- Actions speak louder than words. In a recent story I read, the protagonist made what seemed like a relatively innocuous decision, and another character used that as an opportunity to exclaim how thoughtful and selfless the protagonist was, essentially telling the reader that the protagonist possessed these characteristics. Later, I perceived a couple of actions by the protagonist to be slightly selfish, making that my primary opinion of the character in opposition to what the author was shooting for. If the author had instead created a situation in which the protagonist behaved in a thoughtful and selfless way instead of just telling me, my opinion would not have been so easily swayed.
Method 3. Showing – An entire scene devoted to Sara searching for food until finally breaking down and eating the putrid remains found in the bottom of a dumpster.
If a trait or motivation or whatever is truly important to the story and you need the reader to feel it and believe it to the depths of their being, Telling and Simple Showing just aren’t enough. You need to immerse the reader in the protagonist’s hunger by devoting the proper story space and by delving into the character’s emotions.
Obviously, this method can be even less clear and definitely takes more words that Simple Showing, but I think this is the one that you really have to understand in order to break through to the next level.
If a blue box pops up after you read this, let me know how you did!
Quote:My first lesson as a writer, one that was hard for me to accept, was that everyone starts out at Level 1.
Level 1 is the best part! Continuing with the video game analogy, every time you switch genre, niche, or audience your level resets and you need to learn about the genre conventions and audience expectations all over again. For some, the most exciting part of a game is restarting it with a different class or build. Enjoy being level 1 and look forward to all those mistakes you're going to make and learn from! After all, what's the more memorable and rewarding video game experience: mindlessly slashing through hundreds of 'cannon fodder' enemies, or that one boss you got stuck on for ages and had to learn how to defeat?
Quote:“No!” they scream. “You can’t Tell. Ever. Show, don’t Tell!” ... Any statement that is made that authoritatively tends to turn some people off, and those individuals then strenuously object, leading to tedious debates in online forums.
It's for this reason I tell people to show and tell. For lower schoolers, 'Show and Tell' is the best thing since sliced bread, but without the 'Tell' it has the potential to become a weird art installation you don't understand and can't appreciate.
The purest example of the fallacy of "never tell, always show" is in the following sentence. "He nodded." You can't get much more tell than that, but I've never found a "show not tell" fanatic that had a problem with it. Instead, it's a sliding scale, and you move the slider to fit what you're writing. The light glinted off his sword as he beat the orc back is definitely showing more than He swung his sword, but it's not always the better choice. In this case, short sentences tend to make moments more dramatic, because our written conventions have trained our brains to pause when we see a period outside of an obvious abbreviation. A longer sentence therefore (perhaps paradoxically) feels "faster" than the short one. Since shorter sentences lean more toward telling, we often want more telling at dramatic, punctuated moments. (Pun intended.)
It's all about balance and what you need on this particular page at this particular moment. Writing is an art, not a science.