I’ve begun a month of writing work. By work, I mean an attempt to work a set number of hours a day on writing projects. Two days in I’m still getting a handle on it, but the results have been delightful. The name of the game thus far is preparation. Dreaming, world building, getting to know my characters… these make up the bulk of my time. Some editing has also been on the books for a couple short stories. Lastly, exercises to improve my writing, one of which I’ll share with you today.
In light of this last one, my mind wandered about the concept of show and tell. I recently met someone who recommended Cormac McCarthy to me as an example of “show”. This is a man who, in his book No Country for Old Men, used a highly descriptive style that reads more like a screenplay than a novel. I’ve recently started reading it and see what he was talking about. The imagery reads like you’re watching a movie. Keeping this in mind, a simple definition of show began to take shape.
“Show” is providing the image that the reader then interprets. So one might use wide eyes, gaping mouth, raised eyebrows or gasps set in the context of a scene to evoke surprise or fear.
“Tell” on the other hand gives the reader the information and the reader then creates the image. In other words, the reader is told that a character is surprised or scared and then fills in the image from what the bank of images in their own mind.
I find that I now like both for different reasons. The use of both of them can make the unfamiliar familiar. Showing can give a greater control of the image itself and is popular among our visual culture. Telling however, I believe gives greater freedom to the reader to fill in the visual blank with their own imagery. I am partial to it somewhat because I believe it allows the reader greater freedom to be a co-creator with the author. Regardless, their are good reasons for both and I hope that I learn to use them well. To the point that the reader recognizes nothing more than an incredibly enjoyable story!
So, since I am a teller and struggle with descriptive imagery this was today’s exercise.
- Pick an expressive emotion. i.e. surprise, fear, joy, excitement…
- Observe in pictures, movies, life people expressing these emotions. Note mannerisms, physical characteristics, sounds…
- Create a list of these things.
- Now write it into short scenes. Explore the use of some or all of the items on the list in creating verbal images.
Tell on the other hand provides the intent