Tell or Show: Illustrated

I've read articles that try to explain the difference between a “tell” and a “show” in fiction writing. For whatever reason, they make it sound more complicated than it is. One person suggested reading an entire book just to find one “show” line at the end. How does that help?

I thought I'd give some examples to “show and tell” how I understand the difference. This is probably the most important skill a fiction writer can learn and one that I am constantly working on.

In my non-fiction how to books, I write step-by-step instructions:

Cut on the dotted line.
Glue down the flap.
Cut away the excess.

For all of these, I have a picture on the right hand side with arrows indicating what line, what flap and what excess. The words are the tell. The pictures are the show.

When writing fiction, I don't have pictures for the “show” so the words have to create the image in the readers mind. It takes more words, well chosen words, to make the image. Remember: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, don't use that many words for every moment. Pick the most important features of the picture instead. Use words to describe what part of the picture you are “pointing” to. You don't need to paint the entire picture every step of the way. Paint it one stroke at a time so the reader can build up the complete image.

Recently, I wrote an email to a high school friend explaining why I don't want to go to another high school reunion.

I could have said: “I've changed so much since high school that I felt uncomfortable being there.”

Instead I said: “The old personality felt like a small itchy wool coat trying to slip on my body and smother me.”

Can you feel my discomfort and empathize?

In my novel drafts, I tend to tell what the character feels. In rewrites, I illustrate what that looks like or feels like depending upon the point of view. The books are written from Brent's view so, I can illustrate what he feels. When he's looking at others, I describe what he is seeing.

Tell: “Emily showed distress.”
Show: “Emily tapped her front tooth with a fingernail while her other hand clinched up in a fist.”

Within the context of the scene and the dialog, her behavior makes even more sense. It's one brushstroke on the canvas for that scene.

Tell: “He felt hurt and didn't know how to tell her.”
Show: “He didn't know how to explain the lump in his throat or the tight knot in his stomach.”

My first drafts are often similar to scripts. I set up the scene, write the dialog, put in notes for the actors. Then I go back and turn the script into a series of pictures. Instead of using a camera, I use words.

I'll keep you posted.

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