Show and Tell or Both?
We want readers to enter the mind of our characters, so we don’t TELL readers she’s anxious, we SHOW them how Jane wrings her hands, drops a pen, or covers her mouth with her hand. That’s the essence of SHOW versus TELL, and we’re always instructed to use that device. But dare we ask when we should tell instead?
Actually a few major reasons help us decide when to use either show or tell. Think in one case whether we are trying to move the plot between scenes or write about the action between characters. In one case, we’re filling in background or describing images. That’s different from where we want to enter the character’s head. Another reason in making the decision comes when we want to prompt a general image in the mind of the reader, which may call for telling instead of showing. Especially with dialogue when body language informs the reader about the mind of the characters.
Are we moving the plot, or standing inside the scene? If we’re trying to get Carlos to the meeting with Jorge, we may want to tell about where Jorge’s house lies, or the difficulty in driving past traffic. We may want to remind the reader about the ties Jorge has with certain other people. That’s the realm of telling. But if we want to bring in why Carlos was frustrated with Jorge, we might have him sweating with clammy hands on the steering wheel. We might want to be inside his head as thoughts go back to the last meeting. Carlos felt belittled and shrank from Jorge. Then we would want to show how Carlos looked, or acted.
How do we decide between show and tell when we’re in the middle of a scene? Actually a balance of the two might be important. Show means describing the action or body language of a character. Tell means using a word that informs us of the character. We could say Jorge was confused because we want to tell the reader in a short amount of time so we can focus on a more crucial item. But we could avoid that by showing his movement as he walks to one desk, picks up a paper, then without looking at it, places it down, only to walk to another desk and shake his head. The focus dictates whether we use show or tell — what’s more important in the development of the scene?
Dialogue can include the best example of a balance of show and tell. Lead off the dialogue with telling, and then show at the same time through body language and the dialogue. Carlos had a shocked look on his face. He dropped the stack of papers. “How could she leave him that way?”
Notice the way the blending of the two devices works together. We don’t know how the reader will actually understand the dropping of the papers. We reinforce that by indicating the word shocked. But we use the showing description of the papers to add to his comment about the situation.
When we dare to ask when to use the devices, we should think about how much we’re in the head of the character, whether the necessity calls for giving information quickly, or how we can blend the two in describing the action. We should ask ourselves what is the crucial activity in the scene. That will help us decide on the device.