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February 23, 2011

Tell and Show

The importance of showing and not telling is vital to good writing. 
But as we can see here, telling comes first, and the writer’s transformation of what he is telling into what he is showing is vital to all storytelling. A writer’s story must tell us something--some essential truth/lesson/wisdom--if it is to successfully captivate us.

We focus so much on showing when we present and critique our pages, but often a story feels empty because it doesn’t know what it is about on the deeper, thematic levels. This is because the reader doesn’t know what they are telling. Before we know what to show accurately, we need to know what to tell accurately.

Joseph Campbell writes about the 4 vital roles that mythology play, and I always think about them when I nail down what I am trying to tell (will focus on this in a future blog entry).
But if it does not tell us this thing by accurately showing, it is not successful either--it may not even be a story. So one could say the writer’s process is one of turning accurate telling into accurate showing:
In revision, we often get the comment that we are telling instead of showing, which means we aren’t accomplishing this transformation:
We are failing to accurately show the vital thing we are telling. Often this happens when we describe what happens instead of actually showing it happen. On a larger scale, the plot might be wrong--the wrong thing happens or a character makes the wrong decision--or the character might speak out of character.

If the writing is confusing, the reader doesn’t understand what he is being shown and therefore doesn’t know what he is being told:
If the reader is bored, perhaps we are being shown or told too much:
This is also the reason why cutting is so important.

And that is my spiel about showing and telling.

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