Monday, October 1, 2012

Show and Tell Is The Game I Play

 #27 Show, don’t tell. Depict sensa to the reader and let him/her interpret it.

The advice "Show, don't tell" is one of the first things you'll hear when you start talking to folks about writing. OK, let's unpack what that means.

Reality presents itself to human observers through the five senses. Each of those senses work a little differently with each individual. My eyesight is better than my wife's and it's not as good as it was when I was a kid. And I can hear better from one ear than another. Sensa are the sum total of everything that comes to the observer through the five senses.

After sensa are presented to the observer the mind interprets it. Interpretation is where we decide what sensa means, and where we contextualize and link sensa to every other concept in the mind. Interpretation does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs in the sum total of the observer's experiences. The woodsman who's spent decades in the forest stalking game will interpret bent blades of grass and disturbed soil. He'll interpret these things differently than a city-dweller who might be completely oblivious to the significance of the same sensa.

We continuously encounter more sensa than will ever fit on the printed page. The job of the writer includes figuring out all the sensa in a scene and deciding which of them s/he can record in prose. When I write anything, I have in mind a point of view character. If that POV character is a city slicker, s/he will be oblivious to bent blades of grass or disturbed soil. Conversely, a woodsman will notice such things.

I think that the POV character can provide a little interpretation for the reader, but not much. The woodsman can read the signs and tell the reader they are fresh bear tracks. Of course, if the reader is an expert woodsman, he may not appreciate being told the obvious. Your reader's expertise will determine what's obvious and what's not. If you interpret the obvious parts of a scene for the reader it can be like pre-chewing someone else's food. Unappetizing.

You have to trust your readers to take the prose you put before them and come to understand what's going on.

#28 Show, don’t tell. Witness, do not preach.

I am a Christian, and an Evangelical to boot. Part of my religious background includes an emphasis on communicating the content of my faith. Evangelicals are encouraged to witness to non-believers. Sadly, this does not happen very often. Instead, a lot of my zealous coreligionists preach too much. And this is a mistake.

When you witness in a court of law, you describe what you've actually experienced. If that experience is of a religious nature, your interlocutor may deny your sermon more easily than your experience.

The same goes for your writing.

When you write about some element of your story--a girl for instance--you can say she's beautiful, or intelligent. But these are summary statements. It's better to describe the shape of her face, her eyes, lips, complexion...all of the things your POV character would sense that contribute to an impression of beauty. Likewise, an intelligent girl will use bigger words, solve mathematical problems, or do other things smart folk do.

You may have some deep insight into the way the world works. There are certain facts that brought you to this insight. Trot them out in the sequence that will lead your reader to the same conclusion.

But you can't be heavy-handed about it or you'll come off as propaganda.

Only Commies like propaganda.


  1. I agree with everything except how an intelligent girl will express herself. You describe ab educated woman. A woman who has not received a fine education can be express her intelligence on other than academic ways. It's like my dad always said to me when I did or said something dumb. "All book sense and no common sense."

  2. This is a good point. Intelligence is a hard-to-pin-down quantity. Clearly, a person of either sex who's never been schooled in a topic can hardly be expected to be conversant on such topics despite possessing a superior intellect. The categories of schooled, intelligent, and credentialed should be highly correlated, but I fear this is not necessarily so.

    Nevertheless, this is writing--not reality--and there are times when greater accuracy does not serve better storytelling. I believe I've blogged about this elsewhere: The Curse of Knowledge.


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