Elements of Critique: Show vs. Tell

“You never show me that you love me anymore!”

In some marriages (not mine of course, no, never) the couple sometimes discuss the status of their romance, and the above quote can (in rare cases) spill out into the open.

The man–assuming it’s the man being told this–will probably try to deflect the conversation with, “But I told you I loved you just the other month, and on our anniversary a couple years ago.”

We can safely doubt the success of that argument. Usually the complaint is coupled with examples of actions undone, such as “You don’t bring me flowers,” or “You haven’t done that thing I asked you to do every week for the last six months,” or perhaps “Will you stop typing on that stupid blog for a few minutes and stay awake long enough to have a conversation more than two grunts with me?”

(Note: No specific examples from my experience were utilized in the above paragraph.)

A similar complaint may sometimes arise: “You never tell me that you love me!”

The man being told this, in this case–although again it is wild speculation to assume it’s the man–may resort to defenses such as “But I did X, Y and Z.” In other words, “But I showed you how important you are to me by doing some action.”

Yet sometimes, a person likes to be simply told a thing they need to hear.

While I would never resort to critiquing such marital dysfunction–being far too humble and also unfamiliar with those frustrations common to less blissful pairings–I choose this eminently relatable example to demonstrate today’s topic of Showing vs. Telling.

There’s a simple truth in the above analogy: “Actions speak louder than words.” Most of what we need as readers (and what to look for when critiquing a piece) are the actions characters do which reveal their thoughts, motives, feelings, and goals. The default rule among writers is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Here’s an example of hyper-telling to drive the point home:

The chill made Jo uncomfortable because it was so cold. Thankfully, she was so mad that she hardly noticed. She was so mad in fact that she was infuriated. There was lots of snow.

This should pain our inner editor to read.

Jo could shiver. Her teeth could chatter. The writer could describe her breath coming out in clouds around her face. Is snow still falling? Could it be?

Jo could clench her fists, or stomp around in the snow. She could mutter an imaginary argument with the object of her anger. Or maybe her thought might show us that she’s ignoring the cold because she’s seething and burning inside.

Any showing is better than the example provided.

Showing lets the reader play amateur psychologist and decipher characters’ personalities from their outward actions. Showing tells the reader what they need to know, without merely telling them a fact like a textbook.

Even my dripping sarcasm in the analogy at the beginning of this post tells the reader something without simply coming out and stating a fact. Humor and sarcasm can be a way of showing. (Warning: I do not recommend this method during arguments like those in the opening analogy.)

The default rule is correct. I look for writing that shows exceptionally well, and highlight that for praise. I also look for writing that merely tells when showing would better support the story and invest me in the characters. That I highlight for rewriting with a suggestion or example.

However, “Show, Don’t Tell” is only the default rule. There are always exceptions. First, some things aren’t important enough to the story or to establishing the scene to merit showing. Second, when dealing with anything supernatural or out of the ordinary expected experience of a reader, some telling is merited.

In fantasy and sci-fi, for example, a character may use technology or special powers unique to the story world and thus unfamiliar to the reader. A good way of doing this is to adjust the rule and play Show and Tell. The reader gets a description of what this mysterious thing looks like or what happens when it is used, and then they get a snippet of information about it.

Something similar applies to unfamiliar concepts in other writing. A religious piece might need to explain some of the theology or background information supporting the provided description. A non-fiction piece might relate the unknown new to something the average reader would understand.

Whle this is “telling” and thus arguably forbidden, it helps ground the reader in the reality of the setting. When I critique and find myself reading a showy description that leaves me clueless about what just happened, that’s something to note for the writer’s attention and revision. Likewise, when I find a useful tidbit of telling coupled with showing, I try to highlight that and praise the writer’s effort.

Because, as always, critiquing is about building up more skillful and confident writers. A thorough critique doesn’t just tell them “Good job.” It shows them what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.

Where are we going from here on the A to Z blog challenge? Well, I feel like a Time Lord writing this, but tomorrow in the future, we get to visit the present and the past. Grab your sonic screwdriver and charge up the flux capacitor. Get in your T.A.R.D.I.S. or deLorean, because things are going to get tense.

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