In poker, telling is a bad thing. A tell is a mannerism, which alerts the other players to what you're holding and what you're likely to do next. If, for example, you pull on your left ear lobe every time you think you have a winning hand, that's a tell. A person who tells can lose big bucks.
That's true in writing as well as poker-playing. We're all familiar with the standard exhortation to show, not tell. It comes right after that old saw, write what you know, as standard advice to writers. What the heck is the difference between showing and telling anyway, and how do you know when you've written one or the other?
Let’s start with an example of a business man who has to decide among three proposals. He’s made a decision and is writing a short report to say how he arrived at his decision. He writes:
Implementation proposals were submitted by three internal development teams. All three submissions were reviewed by the writer. Proposal C, while it contained an excellent short-term plan, was lacking in several components crucial to long-term performance, and it was discarded. A and B, the remaining proposals, were similar in cost projection and implementation strategies. However, a cost-benefit analysis, conducted by the writer, indicated that Proposal B was a better match for current corporate structure, and was selected as the winner.
This style of writing is still promoted for businesses in order to appear objective and remove any emotional content from business writing. It shows all the bad habits that won’t work in fiction: distancing from the reader through jargon, use of the passive voice, and the a bland format devoid of any human content. This is an example of passive voice, with telling and it's the worst of the lot. Can you imagine a whole mystery written in that style?
Here's a step up, active voice, with telling
Larry looked at the three folders on his desk. The day he’d listen to one of Dinwoody’s cracked ideas was the day he’d need to be put out to pasture. He tossed Folder C in the garbage can.
He weighted A and B, one folder in each hand, balancing one against the other, as if the weight might tell him something. Close. Darn close. He wished again that young Porter had taken his advice and not submitted. The boy had promise, no doubt about that, but this project needed a steady hand at the tiller. VanDoon it was, then.
He punched his intercom button. “Gloria, get hold Rijas VanDoon. Tell him I want to see him in my office this afternoon, three o’clock if that’s convenient.”
He didn’t know why the board made him go through these stupid exercises. He could have told them from the beginning that VanDoon was the man who’d come out on top.
The passive voice is gone, but readers are still distant from what’s happening. Everything the reader knows about Larry, his company, and his choice of proposals is filtered by the author. The reader is reduced to watching Larry as he/she might watch a person on TV or through a window in the next building.
When the author tells, she controls the reader's access to the story by what details she chooses to include and what reactions she chooses for the reader. Telling often leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and those questions tend to be focused backwards.
Why are Dinwoody’s ideas cracked? Did Larry even read proposal C before he chucked it away?
Why is Larry in a position to give Porter advice? Why didn’t Porter take the advice?
Was VanDoon’s proposal really that good or are Larry and Rijas part of an old-boy’s network?
A common mistake writers make is to think that first person—“I” stories—go inside a character’s head and that third person stories—“him” or “her” stories—take place with the author and writer watching from outside. In fact, both first and third person stories go inside a character’s head. Let’s go inside Larry, experience the scene as he does, not as an outsider looking in.
Larry ran his calloused hand over the thick cardboard folders. They didn’t make cardboard like this any more. Now it was all purple transparent plastic goop, for God’s sakes. Whoever heard of a business folder being purple? Plain, green cardboard said dependability, and as long as he was in charge, plain, green cardboard it would be for any proposals he was going to consider.
The further he flipped through Dinwoody’s proposal, the more the paragraphs shrank in size. Long-term Projections was one anemic sentence. Crap, man, if Dinwoody couldn't dance with bullshit, fake a couple of paragraphs to pad out that there were no long-term projections, he didn't deserve this project. Proposal C landed in the garbage can with a thunk.
Larry balanced Proposals A and B, one on each hand, moving his hands slowly up and down as if his body was a scale. He closed his eyes. If weighing things blindfolded was good enough for Blind Justice, it was good enough for him. The tiny weight difference confirmed what he already knew. Close, darn close.
It was still his business, and he had a right to run it the way he wanted. Assuming it was still his business in six months. Who did he want on the other side of his conference table for the next six months? Jason Porter in his sleazy silk shirts and gold earring? Rijas VanDoon in a charcoal grey suit, white shirt, and understated tie? Men in earrings turned his stomach.
Larry held his finger over the intercom button for a second, then jabbed at it. “Gloria, get hold Rijas VanDoon. Tell him I want to see him in my office this afternoon, three o’clock if that’s convenient.”
Here the reader has an opportunity to touch what Larry touches, hear what he hears, measure his opinions against theirs—maybe the reader thinks purple project folders are cool—and, in the end, the reader sees that Larry makes his decision not on the basis of how good proposal A or B is, but on what Jason and Rijas wear. The reader also learns that Larry is old-fashioned, far from being politically correct, and that his business may be in trouble—it was still his business hints that it might not be his business forever.
Many times showing is also ambiguous and leaves possibilities open. Maybe Larry has just made a terrible mistake that will cost him his company. On the other hand, maybe Jason should make him nervous. Maybe Rijas is the right man to save Larry’s company, though chosen for the wrong reason. Showing sets up not only tension for the immediate question—choosing proposal A, B, or C—but for further repercussion in the story. Like telling, it raises questions, but these questions look forward.
What if Dinwoody decides to get even?
What if Porter does?
What if Rijas VanDoon has had a mid-life crisis, bought a Harley, and shows up at three o’clock wearing biker’s leathers, an earring, and has a tattoo running up the side of his neck?
How to recognize when telling, not showing is important
Events that have no emotional significance; events whose only purpose is to slide the plot forward can be shown.
Larry paid the cashier and took his tray to a table at the far end of the cafeteria.
The Monday morning meeting was a bust. Two hours and forty-seven minutes of unrelieved boredom. As soon as it ended, Larry practically ran for the phone in his office.
Larry looked down at his cold latte. Didn’t anyone drink plain, black coffee any more?
Unless the infamous Rijas, in his motorcycle leathers, is waiting at that cafeteria table, or leading the meeting, or beside Larry in the coffee shop, there’s no need to go into character angst for every small detail. Look for emotionally-charged moments where showing can really shine. Ask yourself, if this happened to me in real life, would I have an emotional reaction? If the answer is "yes," you need to show, not tell.
How to spot a tell:
Have you used a past-tense verb?
Is what the character felt shortened into a summary?
Is body language, dialog, and interaction used to convey the feeling?
If the answer to the first two questions are “yes” and the last one “no,” you probably want to think about a little rewrite.
Writing quote for the week:
I usually know within the first paragraph if I’m interested in a book. It's all about the writing at that point; there hasn't been time for characters or premise to really kick in yet. You may lose me later if the writing stays strong but the rest isn't up to par, but you'll lose me immediately if the writing's not there, no matter how good your concept.
~Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, editor for Berkley, June 2008