Show vs. Tell

One of the things we hear about a lot in writing is show versus tell. Telling does have its place if you’re at a scene transition or need to convey the passage of time, for example. Most of the time, you want to show your story because that’s the part readers like. We are not storytellers, we are story convey-ers.

What does it mean to “show” the story? There are two ways you must master this art if you want to write genre fiction. The first is to put your character in a situation which shows something about them. Don’t tell us the hero is a smart, savvy businessman. Show him in the middle of a contract negotiation and through dialogue, bring out HOW he’s savvy. For example, the two parties disagree on a fine point in the contract and it seems like nothing is going to work, but at the last minute, the hero comes up with a mutually agreeable solution. Nowhere in the text will you write, “John thought he was pretty smart about that clause.” The reader infers it from the scene itself.

The second type of showing is more about voice. Every time you write a line, you have an opportunity to infuse your own personal style to the words. You want your prose to be vivid and leap into the reader’s consciousness. This kind of showing is conveying to the reader something meaningful so the image sticks. I’ve noticed that songs employ this type of showing really well. I think it’s because a song is so short, the artist only has a blink to convey his/her point. Show is the only way to do it. Here are some examples:

“I’ve got Tom Petty playing in my Silverado and I’ve iced down a six-pack” – Pickin’ Wildflowers by Keith Anderson

What does this tell you about the narrator? A whole freaking bunch for fifteen words. Even if you’ve never heard this song or of this artist, I bet you still know it’s a Country song. But – I didn’t mention that, did I?

Word choice is critical in this line. He’s got Tom Petty playing instead of Hank Williams, Jr. because Tom Petty has a song called Wildflowers, so it’s a tip of the hat. Why didn’t he say “my Chevy”? Because Chevy makes trucks and Corvettes. Makes a huge difference to the tone which one it is. Also, Silverado says I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Country boy (I know this because I live in Texas J). Why not a twelve-pack instead of a six-pack? I’d say because country boys rarely have a ton of money and twelve-packs are expensive. Additionally, little podunk 7-Elevens in the middle of Nowheresville are small and don’t have room for twelve packs. I’m making huge suppositions, but that’s what readers do all the time. It’s all in the context, yeah?

What about this one by Big and Rich?

“I’m feelin’ like Tonto, ridin’ a Pinto, tryin’ to chase the Lone Ranger down. I’m a little unraveled, but I’m still in the saddle, callin your name out to the clouds.”

I LOVE this song, called Wild West Show. It’s about a guy trying to reconcile with his estranged girlfriend (or wife, the song’s not specific). Go back and reread the lyrics again, now that you know what it’s about. Brilliant, isn’t it? The imagery in the song is truly amazing, using western themes to describe this couple’s relationship. Never once does the narrator tell us he’s trying to get the girl back or that he’s really frustrated and disheartened by the quest. He SHOWS us. By the way, if you’ve never heard this song, go listen to a sample on Amazon or iTunes. It’s hauntingly beautiful and by far one of my favorite songs ever.

Here’s another really great one – “Tell the devil I said hey when you get back to where you’re from” in the song Grenade by Bruno Mars. Awesome sense of voice in this line. I’d like to hang out with the guy who wrote that and it’s so great, I don’t even think I have to explain it.

Start listening to the lyrics of really clever songwriters and find your own examples of how people convey ideas without TELLING us what they’re telling us. I hope I’ve helped you think about this in a new way or at least differently than you’ve thought about it thus far. I’ll leave you with a quote from the eminently quotable Jess Granger with her thoughts on this. “Show. Tell. It doesn’t matter. What they really mean is don’t write boring.” Go forth and write unboring stories, ya’ll. J

5 thoughts on “Show vs. Tell

  1. Kat, I love your examples using song lyrics! I’d never really thought about show vs. tell that way before…and I have a HUGE music obsession. 🙂 This gives me a new appreciation for the whole show vs tell thing and reminds me not to get lazy!

    I’m off to go write unboring, LOL.

    • I’m glad you liked it. 🙂 I have about a million more examples of lyrics I think are really well done, but I thought everyone would get the point with what I did include. Unboring writing rocks! Thanks for coming by.

  2. Pingback: The Ruby Slippered Sisterhood

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