The Show and the Tell
All writers balance the Show and the Tell. All writers have been told to “show, don’t tell” more than once.
This morning, I’m reminded of this moldy aphorism because I’m judging for the Royal Palm Literary Awards, and I just wrote it. As beginning writers, all of us lean toward using both a Show (to describe the situation) and a Tell (to nail it down). I think there’s something of human nature in this: the need for control. As a novice writer, I work the words to show the look of astonishment on a character’s face changing to anger when she learns an uncomfortable truth. Not easy to describe, so just in case the reader doesn’t get the picture, I tell them that she’s astonished, then angry.
It takes a bit of writing and getting critique to understand the truth of writing: The picture in the reader’s mind is unique to the reader, a mix of the writer’s words and the reader’s experience. The writer needs to balance the Show and the Tell skillfully to create a vibrant picture in the reader’s mind … accurate, but not exact.
The normal critique group comment is “cut the Tell.” That’s almost always said in the context of dialog. Tell has its place, because Tell is compact, a good way of giving information quickly.
I think the reason we often lean toward the belt and suspenders Show/Tell is that need for the reader to see it our way. (The mental equivalent of the plaintive, “What I meant to say was …”).
I must be maturing; I’m learning from advance readers of Skins and Bone that I sometimes do too little Tell. (advertisement: You, too, can be and advance reader. Punch HERE.)