Know When to Show ’em, Know When to Tell ’em…

Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday. Apparently, tis the season for me to get knocked on my butt by random bugs.

Let’s take a look at two passages:

A. She was hungry.
B. Her stomach growled as emptiness gnawed at her. She clutched her belly and stared at the bread through the bakery window as if it were her very salvation.

Which is better?

A year ago, determining the answer to that question would have been quite simple to me. I would have said, “(A) is telling. (B) is showing. Showing is better than telling. Thus, (B) is better than (A).”

The more I learn, the more I disagree with my old self. There are so many more considerations, and I grow less sure of my original assertation every day. Let’s look at it more in depth:

Showing > Telling

Is this statement true in all cases? The first example that pops into my mind where it isn’t is a transition between scenes where I want to move forward in time and space but where nothing interesting happens. It seems intuitively obvious that summarizing that transition using telling is far superior to showing uninteresting activities in detail.

Of course, some would say that it’s better to leave out the transition altogether. That argument may, at times, be valid, but it does not speak to the original premise. Saying that C>A does not eliminate the need to prove the B>A.

If Showing isn’t always better than Telling, we need to adopt a more nuanced approach, so let’s look at the all the considerations:

1. Engagement – Item (B) is much more engaging than (A). Showing draws the reader in more than telling.
2. Clarity – Item (A) clearly states what you want the reader to know. I think that most people will get what you’re trying to convey from (B), but, anytime you leave open the opportunity, someone is going to miss it. What you absolutely do not want to do, however, is to use both (A) and (B).
3. Story Space – If a description is not relevant to your story, you should leave it out. If a description is relevant but not important, you should mention it but not dwell on it. If a description is important, you should spend more story space — words — on it. (A) is more concise. If the fact that she’s hungry is relevant but not important, it’s a winner. If the hunger is important, (B) is better.
4. Active – Existing in a state of hunger is not active. Growling and clutching is.
5. Pace – Using three words in a short sentence is fast pacing. Using two sentences for a 29-word description slows pacing.

I still think that showing should be a writer’s default method for conveying stories, but the situation is not as easy as always show, never tell.

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