Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

0 thoughts on “Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

  1. This is a great explanation. I just wish I had this about 500,000 words ago. John you really need to put out a full length book in the style of “Bird by Bird” use your social media marketing tools and make a big splash, especially for people who have sat next to Earl their entire writing life.

  2. Thank you so much for this; it’s absolutely invaluable. I’ve been reading Kristen Lambs recent Deep POV blogs and you are both singing the same song (and harmonising beautifully). Oh, and I borrowed a book on Kindle Unlimited yesterday. I have gainfully struggled with two chapters, but there is so much telling and so little showing I’m not going to try to finish it. Potentially great story, ruined by poor story-telling. Just going back to review my first two books before they go live to make sure I’m not doing too much telling…..

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