April 1, 2008

Show, Don't Tell

According to wikipedia, "'Show, don't tell' is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description."

It goes on further to give some examples as well as the opposing viewpoints regarding the philosophy. To add my two cents, I think they're both valid, but only used in concert. You need to be able to tell something and back it up with action. If John loves Aeryn, let him say so but back it up with the way he acts towards her and the way he reacts to her actions.

Some examples from fiction (at least, I think so):

  • Dead Like Me, "Be Still My Heart" - It's only hinted at, but I think there's enough telling for it to be seen barely. Daisy is noticeably uncomfortable around her reap, a young woman who's a mistress to some man. She gets killed when she gets too needy, too close to the man's "public" self. Later, talking to Mason, she mentions that she had a sister. Putting two and two together, she probably had a sister not unlike her reap.
  • Persona 3 from Atlus Games - Something that maybe has too little telling really. The characters in the game shoot themselves in the head with what is effectively fake gun (called an Evoker) to bring out their other selves. If that's not supposed to be a sublimation of the self for temporary power, I don't know what is.
  • Farscape, "John Quixote" - Not integral to story, but during the portions where John is supposed to outside of the game but he's not, there are subtle clues. D'argo is wearing his season 3 clothes and outside of one mention that they "haven't seen them," Sikozu and Noranti are nowhere to be seen. It all ties in to the idea that this is how Stark last knew them before parting in season 3.
The key is to balance it. There's definitely such as thing as too much showing or too much telling, but I think it's far too easy to talk (tell) a big game and not back it up.

I bring this up because I keep thinking about it, both in the realms of fiction and the real world. Because who really gets ahead in this world? The people who can tell you they're going to do something, and then go ahead and do it. Too bad I'm not that great at it.