Successful Author Jerry Cleaver Explains Showing vs Telling

May 1, 2003
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Immediate FictionSuccessful Author Jerry Cleaver Explains “Showing” vs “Telling” 

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Editor's Note: One of the most difficult concepts for new writers to grasp is the difference between “showing” and “telling.” Here, author Jerry Cleaver gives concrete examples from his popular book, Immediate Fiction , A complete Writing Course, Chapter 7, “Showing, reprinted in part by Authorlink on May 1, 2003, with permission from the publisher, St. Martin's Press.

7

Showing

If I say, “He was a dangerous person, a walking time bomb,” are you gripped by the character? You may be interested or even a little hooked since a walking time bomb promises action and excitement, but you're not there yet.

See how the following affects you:

He was going to kill somebody. Maybe kill himself before it was over. His six-shot Smith and Wesson lay in the glove compartment. She had a six-inch, ventilated, blue steel barrel, a tight coil hammer that bit into your thumb when you drew it back, and one of those polished crescent triggers, cool to the touch. She was fully loaded, so smooth and trim he got a hard-on thinking about her.

That gives you an experience rather than a general idea of the character. The first example tells you about the character in general terms. This one gives you the experience of him by means of personal specifics, shows you who he is, acting in the immediate moment. The first statement is in the language of the author—from the outside. The second is in the language of the character—from the inside. The first we call telling. The second we call showing. An unfortunate choice of terms in some ways, since we talk about story telling, being a good story teller. Then, when you get into the actual craft, we go on to make this distinction between telling and showing in which telling is bad and showing is good. “Show, don't tell” is the old writing rule. And rightly so, since showing is the most fundamental of all writing techniques. Showing is to story as heat is to cooking.

The author says, “He was an awful person.” The reader says, “Show me.” You have to prove it because saying it doesn't make it so. You must create the experience. You must make it happen because the reader will take your word for nothing. But if you show the actual experience, happening here and now, word for word, right before our eyes, the reader will be there, living it through the character.

If I went on to tell you our dangerous time bomb character was angry, narrow-minded, and cruel, it wouldn't do much to you. You wouldn't experience much more about him. But if I showed him acting angry, narrow-minded, and cruel, it would be another story. See how the following affects you:

He could feel the heat coming through the floorboard as he pressed the pedal of the piece-of-shit Chevy he'd stole. He was on a two-lane, ass-backwards, redneck road somewhere in the Florida Panhandle. It didn't matter. It could be Texas, Virginia, or Arizona. It was all the same. Hauling his broken ass in this can of Sterno, getting to where he needed to go, which was any fleabag motel that would take him. The kind of run-down dump on the side of this dry lick road where some fat dumpling of a toothless daughter of her own brother/father snickers when you tell her you need a room and she thinks you want it to get laid or do something perverted to yourself.

 

Maybe he'd shoot her too.

The world's like that. You end up doing something you thought you never would. What the fuck!

The fuck was, it was hotter than an oven on Thanksgiving in this tin can with no air-conditioning. Just his goddamn luck, the first old fool he robbed outside of Jacksonville had a car that didn't have no air. Who the hell buys a car in Florida that don't have air? The stupid old fart actually tried to stop him from getting into the car. He'll see what a fool he was when he wakes up in the hospital and sees his foot looking like hamburger. He woulda shot him in the head if he knowed the son-of-a-bitch had no air.

That should have given you a feel for the character, given you the experience of him, shown you what he was about.

If I say fear, you don't experience fear. If I say, “Barbara was terrified,” you don't experience Barbara's terror. But if Barbara is seven years old and is cornered in an alley by a seedy-looking man who says, “Come on little darling. We're going for a ride in my car,” you might begin to feel something for her because of the situation. If she says, “Where's my mommy? I want my mommy,” you start to feel her fear as she's feeling and expressing it even tough the word fear isn't used. You have to give us the actions of the characters without labels or generalities. Specifics, specifics, specifics—the personal specifics of the characters and their actions (showing) are what do the job.

These are pretty clear-cut examples—all or none. The problem is, it's not always a matter of all or none. Sometimes you have a mix of telling and showing. Instead of a full scene, you give us a partial scene. A partial scene is one that gives us the setup in summary (generality) and mixes in enough dialogue and specifics to sketch it in and give us an experience. Think of it as the difference between highly realistic painting in which you can't see the brush marks, and impressionism, in which a few broad strokes give you the image. In partial scenes, you must give the reader enough (as the brushstrokes in impressionism) so that his imagination can fill in the rest. The thing to remember is that showing a little is better than telling a lot.

The showing example I gave you in chapter 3 is also a good example of partial showing. Let's look at it again. We started with the dictionary definition, the idea, of homely. “Homely, adj. Lacking in elegance or refinement. Not attractive or good-looking.” That's the idea of homely. The create the experience of homely, to show it, it must be put in personal terms, a specific person's experience of homeliness. Here's the showing of it again.

“She's a homely girl. I don't know where she gets it,” my six-year-old ears overhear my mother saying to my Aunt Beth. I don't know what “homely” means, but I know it's bad. I run to my room, bury my head in my pillow and cry. Eventually, I learn what homely really means. I means to be taken to the dentist for my buckteeth: “Can you make them straighter?” To the plastic surgeon for my nose: “Can you make it smaller?” It means I am dragged to walking classes, talking classes, and posture classes: “Chin up. Shoulders back. Enunciate. Smile.” Homely means that everything I put in my mouth is carefully weighed, measured, and calculated beforehand, so I don't' take up any more space that I already do. “Will she ever lose weight, Doctor?” my mother asks. “She's just a big girl,” says Doctor Chen. Homely means that you see a look of disdain on the face of a mother who wishes her daughter could be a beauty queen. You see that look every day of your life.

 

—Elizabeth Brown

This paragraph skips a lot. It's an overview, a summary, of many years of the daughter's life with this mother. It doesn't give us everything, but it's personal and specific enough to give us an experience, to reach the heart, which is something the dictionary definition could never do. This paragraph was the lead into a scene of the daughter going home as an adult to visit this mother and still feeling intimidated and frightened by her. It was an excellent way to give us a feel for who's who and what's what as we are led into a painful and dramatic scene.

Here's another example:

He lay in bed at night, his pillow over his head, trying not to hear his parents fighting—the banking and hitting. “You bitch, you lousy bitch,” his father said. The sound of a slap, a thump, a kitchen chair skidding across the floor. “Oh, why? Why do you do this to me?” his father howled. ". . . showing is the most fundamental of all

 

writing techniques."

—Jerry Cleaver

You get the picture pretty well, but you don't get the father coming through the door and the kid's thoughts, his running for cover in his room, the parent's conversation that led up to the violence, or how the fight finally ended. You don't get a lot, but if it's done well, you get enough—enough to stick with it. You can do it once in a while, but if you do it too much, you're leaving too much out to hold the reader.

The more you tell, generalize, the more you cut the reader out of the experience and yourself too, for that matter, since it's as much about you and your having the experience as it is about the reader having it later. The best way to give the reader an experience is to make sure you have one first.

"Ideas change us only if they relate to our life"

 

—Jerry Cleaver Showing takes place in real time, the pace of reality. . . .

Life is showing. Ideas change us only if they relate to our life. The power is in the experience (showing). Copyright 2002 by Jerry Cleaver

 

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