Writing Fiction – Show vs Tell

We all know, love and hate that which gives view to our surroundings, be it sight, touch, scent, taste or noise. There are moments when we’d crave to shut one of them for a temporary moment-needed, reasons for such originating from loud teenage brats in the public transport, the disgruntling stench of sewage, the skin-crawling chill of frost, the sight of a person least desired or the taste gags.

To tell or to show a story? That is the question. Some may say the answer is obvious and you should stick with one of the options and go with it, but reality whispers another kind of objectivity upon mastery of the page, upon mastery of the written word.

You must start looking at show and tell like Yin and Yang, since one needs the other to create the balance of quality storytelling. If you only tell in a story, the reader gets detached, so the only thing they see is words without emotional meaning. When the reader gets overflowed with the concept of show, the material develops purple prose and loses the path and point it was trying to steer the reader to.

I’ve always sought to tell as little as possible, to integrate showing nearly all the time in my stories, but then I came to a realization. I was losing the goal that was supposed to be in front of me, which now had a trail of fancy lines with fancy words. They’d be fancily nice, but the pompous nature focuses the reader’s attention at the fanciness, thus, the reader loses the sight of the plot, the sight and purpose of the written material.

I guess there’s no better way to kill the point of your story than by dividing the reader’s attention to words of uselessness.

Telling is the easiest way to ‘tell’ a story, since it just takes descriptive capabilities and a general idea to talk about. Showing is on another level entirely, since there are many aspects to be taken under consideration for one to master the craft to lure in a reader and keep them to the end.

So how do we show in a story? Well, it’s not simple, but I can explain to you the basics that govern our emotions, and they are linked with the 5 senses that support our awareness as humans.

Five Senses of Awareness:

  • Sight: Colors, shapes, forms, effects, particles, materials, volume of light and small characteristics of details.
  • Touch: Freezing, cold, hot, searing, normal, smooth, dry, coarse, wet, gritty, greasy, tingling.
  • Taste: Sour, bitter, salty, sweet, umami, metallic, starchy, spicy, fat.
  • Hearing: High/medium/low pitched.
  • Smell: Floral soft, oriental; oriental soft; mossy, dry woods; aromatic; citrus; water; green; fruity.

Those are the 5 elements of our awareness. All of them create our emotions, unless you’re a psycho, which muddle in our decisions, thoughts. Emotions are a powerful tool every author should strive to perfect and amalgamate into a harvester’s scythe, in a good way.

It’s no easy process and it takes a lot of practice and experience, even I sometimes fall victim to the complexity of developing truly gripping stories, tho, such issue does arise from underdeveloped plots and characters, bad editors and prejudice against constructive criticism.

The emotions that we can have can vary and mingle with each other in the span of the moment, but we need to know them all so that we can master how to shuffle the decks of heartache or delight.

Emotion’s List:

  • Love: Affection, desire.
  • Joy: Hope, cheerfulness, pride.
  • Grief: Sadness, shame.
  • Shock: Surprise, confusion.
  • Rage: Anger, repulsion, annoyance, envy, impatience, anticipation.
  • Terror: Fear, nervousness, doubt.

All of these are major headers with their sub-sections, under which there are hefty thesauruses an editor can use to bring life and fluidity to a paragraph, hence, a story. It is all linked with Plutchnik’s Wheel of Emotions, from which I’ve based my development of showing and have built upon it, with the increase of my experience.

Rober Plutchik was a psychologist, and he reached the conclusion that there are 8 types of main emotions, which you can see on his wheel of emotions, which spreads in the form of a colorful and magnificent flower-eternal.

He theorized these emotions are all linked with every living being which breathes air on this good earth, including us humans, because you know, we’re living beings? Anyway, emotions have always been the mechanism that has kept us alive through the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, sapien evolution, since they’d tell us when danger is present or when we’re doing something right and vice versa.

That gnawing thought and feeling of constriction in your chest when something is happening in front or around you? It’s the genetic code being activated by your awareness at seeing patterns, patterns that in the past meant death or injury, grief or ardor.

When someone your reader goes through the material, they need something to latch their hearts on, to dig the roots of their emotions within the gentle pages of the book, article or digital pixels. You can achieve such by invoking the human awareness.

Keep in mind that invoking the awareness is not by putting the word bad or happy, since those words by themselves are meaningless and a futility without goal. You must give mention about the scents in the air, the body language of the other person or their appearance, the sounds that trudge the atmosphere, the taste that roams the mouths and the experiences the skin meets.

Tired of talk the talk? Let’s then walk the walk:

Example of tell:

  • The air was cold, but Roan did not notice. He looked at the city below and then he sighed. Such a boring city. He didn’t like it, so he went on his way.

Example of show:

  • Coldness sprinkled the air around Roan, but his thoughts were keeping him away from the tribulations of flesh. His eyes were set upon the mass of concrete, brick and stone that fumed in dark clouds of smoke. Always the monotone and filthy city, he could never hold any briskness at it, only repulsion and indignation to its unhealthy urges. Swiping his runny nose, Roan no longer saw fit to idle in the sullen coatings of smog, hence, he breathed in the freshness of forest and let himself drown in the chirps of nature’s guardians and rightful citizens.

See the difference? But even if showing is better, if you overdo the detailing of everything, you’d get stuck in this slow walk of regress. It’d turn into purple prose.

You may think the extravagantness of purple prose is to be sought, but I’m here to hold the danger sign high in the air and blow the whistle at you, before, you’d slip into the manhole and lose yourself in the sewers of this foreign city.

Have your tellings, have your showings, but never forget to strike balance between the two. As Thanos once said, ‘Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.’ and then murdered half the universe. Don’t worry, your strive for balance won’t murder anything, probably just the hearts of readers. But as you hurt them, you can mend them, thus, is where the magic of storytelling sprouts true.

Purple prose creates digression, and digression is anything un-needed within a story to make sense to the reader. If you can remove half your paragraph and keep the soul of the context which was meant, then it should remain ‘perfectly balanced’.

What are you waiting for? Start typing and practicing, otherwise you’re going to forget all this information and will go back to those old traditional ways. Learning is progress. Hard to teach our grandparents the importance of such, huh.