Thursday, March 18, 2010

Show vs. Tell

Any good writer, and probably almost all of the bad ones too, has heard the phrase “show, don’t tell,” at some point in their career. Actually, they’ve probably heard it a million times in their careers. From the classes that talk about descriptions, to the books on writing, to the writer’s workshops, that is a writing basic.

It’s an easier said than done kind of thing. Sometimes you worry that the point that you’re trying to make might just be too vague, that your allusion might be missed. So you tell your reader what you want them to see.

Or you want to be sure that your reader knows exactly how the characters are acting, specifically speaking, so you throw in that adverb so they know exactly what’s going on. We’ve all done it, there’s no need to be ashamed.

But, be it leading the reader directly where you want them to end up, or just not using strong enough verbs, too much telling is a sign of poor, or perhaps more accurately, underdeveloped writing.

The best example I can come up with to demonstrate this is the game My Sims Agent. This is a fun little game I have for the Wii system. I think it’s supposed to be for younger kids, but I’m not very good at any video games other than Bejeweled, so it’s right on my level. The basic plot of the game is that you’re running around the town trying to find clues to solve little mysteries, all of which build up to the big overarching mystery.

Every time you find a clue you don’t even have to try to guess what the clue means, the game out and out tells you, and it’s a little frustrating. Most of the time you’ve figured out what it means anyway, but all of the guess work has been taken out, all of the thinking has been taking out.

I suppose an example of a game with way too much showing and not enough telling would be the Myst series of games, where basically you had to guess what you were supposed to be doing the entire time, which just goes to show that it’s all about balance.

So next time you’re thinking about what to show or tell your reader think, is this a clue to a puzzle that they can solve on their own?

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