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 Show vs. Tell

Discussion in 'Writing Guides' started by Nyctibius, Aug 20, 2019.

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  1. Nyctibius

    Nyctibius The Owl Administrator

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    On this thread I'd like to discuss the nuances of Showing emotion versus Telling it. It can be hard to know which is which, or when to use one or the other, especially when getting into writing or after a long break from the scene. First of all, let's try and define each topic into its own realm;
    • To Show is to describe; using adjectives to give someone a series of ideas and concepts, or descriptions of specific responses to an emotional stimulant (or, in other words, literally showing people how your character is reacting).
    • To Tell is to be direct in your description. You tell the reader directly that your character is angry, happy, sad, uneasy.
    A loose definition doesn't really capture the spirit of it, though. I'll give you some examples of both in the following couple of points. In the first, my goal will be to describe someone who is anxious;

    The moment he entered the room he could feel a strange sort of tension in the air. It was like being able to taste the molecules, so tightly packed together that even the oxygen itself took on mass. His step faltered and he almost fell, catching himself on one of the chairs that lined the room before he could wipe out completely. He felt a flush creep up his cheeks, and his shoulders coiled as he approached the desk. The receptionist didn't look very happy. The idea of interrupting what appeared to be a marathon text made strange muscles in his gut flutter, but he shuffled up to the bleached wooden surface and cleared his throat softly, trying not to disturb the packed atmosphere.
    There's a few different emotions in there, but the main one is anxiety. This is shown through his perception of the atmosphere in the room, the way his body responds, and even how he responds to the other character's perceived emotional state. Now for telling, again using anxiety;

    He took half a step into the room, nearly stumbling over himself as he went. One scan of the bleached-white surfaces and sterile environment was enough to set him on edge; the utterly uninterested receptionist, face backlit by the phone in her hands, made him downright anxious. His stomach clenched, and when he tried to speak he made an odd sort of squeak instead. His hands fumbled as he braced against the counter.​

    In this example there is no showing. I'm telling you, directly that he is anxious. I'm also using something called the Rule of Threes, which is defined as thus: for every one tell you provide three shows to support it. Let's take another look at the example:

    He took half a step into the room, nearly stumbling over himself as he went. One scan of the bleached-white surfaces and sterile environment was enough to set him on edge; the utterly uninterested receptionist, face backlit by the phone in her hands, made him downright anxious. His stomach clenched, and when he tried to speak he made an odd sort of squeak instead. His hands fumbled as he braced against the counter.​

    The red is telling; I set up with the comment about being on edge, then solidify the emotion by telling you he's anxious. Then I provide three show-like examples of how that anxiety is affecting him. This isn't something you should rely on frequently, however, and is in fact only one of a few ways to use telling effectively.

    With that said it is a good rule of thumb to try and show more than you tell. Showing is more elegant, poetic, and helps bring the reader into a situation more fully than simply telling them about the mood they should be seeing. "Good" writing is meant to evoke emotion, like any artform. A beautiful picture can move you to tears, and a good song can uplift your spirits (music is so scientific that some brilliant people have even formulated what beats and tempos make us happiest, which is why all the top songs of summer sound the same year to year). If you want to hone yourself as a writer, learning when to show and when to tell is a good way to start doing that.

    There's a lot of nuance involved with this, though, and there's myriad ways to write. Any professional author I've researched seems to have said at one point or another that rules in writing are not concrete, and many find success by breaking these rules.
     
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