The Human Condition:

Showing vs. Telling – December 1, 2013

Gun in waistband

I really want to like Jane Austen. Really. But as charming and amusing as her stories are, I can’t get over her mode of telling them. And that’s the problem—too often she tells them.1 This was all the fashion in the early 19th century, when the novel as a vehicle for storytelling was still in its infancy. But the modern sensibility is shaped by later practices and influences from other art forms, as I will show.

In creative writing classes, they make a big deal about “showing” vs. “telling.” This is sometimes hard for beginning writers to understand. In both cases, the medium is still just words, the verb tense is still in the past, and the pronouns are still he, she, and they—unless the novel is told first person, in which case it’s I and we. None of the bare mechanics of writing actually changes, and yet the feeling is very different.

In short form, the difference between telling and showing is the difference between writing “Roger was fat,” and writing “Roger’s chin rolled over the edge of his collar and the buttons tugged the cloth of his shirt sideways across his belly.” Showing is less economical, requires more words, and takes longer. It slows down the story. But it also paints vivid pictures and pulls the reader deeper into the reality of what is happening.

For the literal-minded, the above passage is still just telling, but with more descriptive detail. We don’t say “fat”; we show what fat looks like. And, if you’re willing to grant the reader a smidgen of sympathy and willingness to play along, writing “fat” can be as good as any number of descriptive jelly rolls to get the point across and keep the story moving forward. So showing must be something deeper, more structured, less obvious—right?

My own personal approach to showing is to embed the narrative in the point of view of a single character, at least for the unit of time, place, or action required to present what I think of as a single “scene.”2 This disciplines my writing. I have to work within a framework of what that character can see and hear, know and remember. I adapt the story to that character’s perceptions, assumptions, likes and dislikes, and level of understanding—that is, I place the reader’s awareness inside the character’s head. I try to use the language and experience of the character as much as possible, so that a lawyer will be thinking in terms of legal relationships and positioning, while an engineer will think in terms of mechanical relationships and possibilities.3

This discipline obviously limits the scope of my storytelling. So, to get a rounded view of what’s actually going on, I use different characters who know different parts of the story. Their views may be in conflict, and their intentions and assumptions usually are. I trust the reader to weigh the evidence and decide who—if anyone—is closest to the truth.4

Because I limit the narrative to a single person’s perceptions, feelings, and memories, my writing tends to be more showing than telling, even though the mechanics of the language are the same. Dry facts and past findings may be presented in a scene’s first paragraph or two, to set up the reader and character for what is to come. But even there, I try to give these bits of background emotional weight and actively perceived implications.

The opposite of this point-of-view writing is the “omniscient narrator,” who sees all, knows all, tells all, hovers over the story, and stands outside time—and the story’s emotional implications—rather like a god. The omniscient narrator has the viewpoint of the audience in an old-fashioned stage play. There everything is shown and known, open to inspection, and perceived by everyone on stage during the scene. Even private intentions and realizations are delivered through the technique of an actor putting a hand against his face and speaking an “aside.”

Writing as a medium for storytelling only started to achieve universal appeal with the advent of Gutenberg and movable type in the 15th century. As soon as printed books became widely available, people acquired the impulse toward universal literacy and private reading for pleasure. But before that, stories were told by bards and troubadours after dinner, or presented by players on a stage. This was the medium for 2,500 years or more, going back to Greek and Roman playwrights, and before them to the mystery plays of shamans and priests. Readers of early novels, like those of Jane Austen, were given the omniscient viewpoint of an audience sitting beyond the stage’s “fourth wall,” outside the proscenium arch.

Writing in the 20th century was strongly influenced by the competing medium of film, just as earlier reading for pleasure was influenced by the theater. I believe the modern approaches to narration—and to showing vs. telling—have followed the growth in sophistication of the movies.

Early movies used a stationary camera that approximated the field of view and viewpoint of an audience sitting outside the arch. The action took place as on a stage, at a distance, with an implied omniscience. Soon, however, directors were engaging in occasional closeups on one character or another to show particular nuances of intense emotion and dramatic reaction. In the old silent movies, sudden bursts of realization or reflection that might have been carried in a theatrical aside—as well as dialogue content too complicated to be communicated by facial expression and gesture alone—would be handled with a bit of text written on a card and inserted into the action. But the viewpoint was still outside the action, with the audience.

That sort of moviemaking feels dated to modern audiences. Now the camera moves around, pointing its focus like the attention of a character in the action. The microphone is directional, picking up and emphasizing some sounds, muting others. The point of view does not necessarily track just one character, and it certainly does not remain fixed inside his or her eye sockets, as does my fictional narration, because actors are paid to be seen, not become invisible spectators. But the function of the roving camera is to direct the audience’s attention, and if one character notices the bulge of a gun in another’s jacket, the camera will zoom in, isolate the perception, and set up that part of the story.

It has become a commonplace of moviemaking—good writers take note—that if the camera shows any setting as more than just background scenery or any object as more than just an everyday prop, then that scenery or prop will have acquired meaning, gained importance to the story, and will play a part later on. The roving camera has become a method of showing rather than telling. It replaces the old-fashioned way of communicating, where one character says to another, “Say, that’s a nice gun you’ve got there,” or “I didn’t know the old mill was on this road.”

Modern storytelling adopts this cinematic focus, and point-of-view writing is highly adaptable to such a focus. The omniscient narrator does not write “Cynthia had a gun and she knew how to use it.” Instead, Roger sees the gun in Cynthia’s hand and—by the firmness or wobble of her grip, if not from his personal knowledge of her skill level as a gun enthusiast and hunter—gauges how likely she is to fire it. That’s showing rather than telling.

This is not at all to say that writing a modern novel is like writing a screenplay. Studying screenplays as an art form can be useful for any writer as one more tool in the kit—and in case his or her novel gets picked up in Hollywood. But the form itself is very different from writing for a reader’s pleasure. Screenplays are technical documents, instructions to the director, actors, and backstage departments. Screenplays have a strict format, with indents that distinguish dialogue from action and that scale the duration of both, so that one page of script roughly equates to one minute of screen time. Screenplays are barren of description. Dialogue is unadorned, with just enough words to convey useful information with a hint of character. Exact phrasing and delivery are left to the actor and director. Action is terse, with just enough detail to guide the actor’s movements and changes of focus—as well as providing the location manager, property master, and wardrobe mistress with any necessary details. “Roger was fat” is not for the benefit of an imaginative reader but a cue to the casting department.5

Still, the cinematic approach to storytelling informs and advances the art of writing stories and novels. Good writing, I believe, has become more visual, aural, and sensual. Explanations of relationships have become demonstrations of the character’s embedded love or hate, trust or wariness. Action has become graphic and sequential, focusing on step-by-step development rather than after-the-fact summations. The reader experiences the story in real-time action rather than just hearing it described in generalities such as a bard might use.6

The art of writing is much more than just telling a story. Instead, you must direct the reader’s awareness, attention, expectations, and emotions. You must reveal the nuances of character and the specifics of the world they inhabit. You must make the reader live in that world and care about what happens to those people. And to do that, you must show what’s going on rather than just talk about it.

1. If you don’t believe me, go back and read the first chapter of Sense and Sensibility. It’s a cross between a genealogy and a legal document to show the entanglement of an estate in order to leave a mother and three daughters dependent and destitute. A playwright would at least have communicated this history, in more compact form, through a breakfast-room conversation somewhere in the first act. A modern novelist would have shown the moment of discovery, when the will is read—which I believe is somewhat like the opening of the Emma Thompson screenplay in the 1995 movie version. The disembodied narration of the actual novel is unfashionably antique.

2. See Writing for Point of View from April 22, 2012.

3. In a recent conversation, one of my friends who had just finished reading The Professor’s Mistress chided me for using “propeller” to refer to the motive power of the steamboat Galatea when everyone knows the nautical term is “screw.” Yes, of course, except that scene was written from the viewpoint of William Henry. He is a classics scholar and a landsman who falls in love with the boat for her cutter-like bow, her mahogany woodwork, and her link to a more gracious past. Before this, the closest he ever came to yachting was a scholarly article in the debate about ancient warships—trireme vs. quinquireme. So he would use the more formal term “propeller.”

4. To see this played out, take a look at my novel First Citizen, where two first-person narrators tell two slightly different versions of the same story.

5. For more on the art of writing screenplays, see Syd Field’s excellent manuals Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter’s Workbook.

6. Think of how using opening screenfuls of background narration and “voiceovers” has gone out of fashion in modern movies. The most recent productions don’t even use place names superimposed on a wide-angle shot to identify the location, but instead the director chooses that shot so that even the least informed viewer can identify Washington, D.C., Paris, or London. And if the place is Anytown, U.S.A, it may not even be identified but rather shown for what it is by familiar features and actions.
       Similarly, the film opens and proceeds without a theatrical dramatis personae. Movies in the 1930s and ’40s would give the credits up front, and this served the dual purpose of identifying the major characters for the audience as well as acknowledging the actors. Nowadays, unless a character is important enough to be mentioned subsequently in dialogue, he or she may never be identified by name at all but only by face, character type, and a role which the audience must intuitively grasp.